Tuesday, March 10, 2009 

The peace process strikes back.

The sudden revival of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is neither as sudden nor as surprising as has been made out in some quarters. Warnings had been made over the last couple of years that dissident Republicans were growing in strength, or at the least growing in their brazenness; the terrorist groups on both sides have long kept their capability to commit outrages on ice, mainly to enforce their criminal rather than political activities. Quite why they chose precisely now to launch the first murders of soldiers and policemen in over 10 years is unclear, but it might not be entirely unrelated to the decision last week by Sir Hugh Orde to reintroduce special forces troops into the province, ostensibly on the grounds of preventing that which has now happened, but a move that has always been a red line with nationalists.

Immensely important here is gaining a sense of perspective. At most, active members of both the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA number in the low hundreds, if that; their supporters are probably only a few hundred higher, and going by the graffiti which has quickly been sprayed up on walls some of those involved may well not be able to even remember the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The next generation, sometimes just until they grow out of their youthful radicalism, often want to rerun the battles of their fathers. Furthermore, if we deal with the murders of the two soldiers and the policeman as we should have responded to the far larger threat posed by Islamic extremists, who themselves probably number not much more than the groups in Northern Ireland but who often have far wider aspirations, as criminal acts and not as an existential challenge, the number of murders involving shootings in London alone in a month is probably more than the three in the last few days.

Always key to isolating support for the extremists was the response of Sinn Fein. More even than a challenge to the peace process itself, the attacks were a challenge to them, intended to push the party and the IRA's former members and leaders now turned politicians into what they regard as full collaboration with the British state itself. This was why the criticism, almost all from the right-wing press, directed at Sinn Fein for not condemning the attacks harshly enough was potentially incredibly counter-productive; both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have had to provide a balance between denouncing their former comrades while not alienating their supporters by giving too much away. They were certainly right to suggest that these attacks were also aimed at cultivating a harsh overreaction from the state: they know more than anyone that it was the doors being kicked in, the impunity of the RUC and the treatment of the nationalist community that brought more recruits than anything else into the IRA. It certainly wasn't their rhetoric or other political aims, that's for certain.

John Ware noted in his Guardian article
that the "m" word had not been used by Sinn Fein. This might well have been because they were building up to using a far more punishing and ostracising one: standing alongside Orde and the first minister Peter Robinson, McGuinness denounced those responsible for the murders as traitors. For a member of Sinn Fein to be standing alongside either man at a press conference would not so long ago have been unthinkable; for him to also launch such a vicious, angry assault on the RIRA and CIRA could well be as historic a moment as some of the previous signings of agreements have been, as was the formal declaration from the IRA that war was over and that their weapons had been put beyond use. After his statement, the criticism about Adams' supposed "mealy-mouthed" criticisms or him fanning the flames by comparing the deaths of soldiers to the death of former provisionals seems utterly misplaced.

Just as it was to be hoped that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan last week may have brought the disparate factions there together in condemnation of those who wished to undermine their nation state, it seems more likely that something along those lines may happen now in Northern Ireland. Of course, the huge differences between the nationalists and the unionists are never going to be fully breached, but the overwhelming response so far has been that the people there never want a return to the days where the gun and the bomb, but most of all fear itself, ruled the day. Sinn Fein has done all that could be reasonably asked of them: now it is up to the police force they have come to support to bring those responsible to justice.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

Remembering and forgetting the past.

In a world where the attention span of the average person appears to dim by the year, it's easy to forget that conflicts apparently solved continue to fester long after the settlement itself has been agreed. Even taking this into account, the speed with which Northern Ireland has moved from something regarded as intractable and insolvable to a model for the settlement of other on the surface similar conflicts has been remarkable, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness no longer the hard men of the IRA Army Council, but almost cuddly politicians, Ian Paisley no longer a hate-filled bigot opposed to the slightest of compromises but a laughing first minister, since retired with his place in history assured.

All this has ignored that the tensions beneath the surface remain palpable, the threat from dissidents on both sides apparently increasing, with no real proper attempt made at reconciling the communities that still in many places live apart, isolated, cut off. That previous unsolvable conflict, South Africa, now provides the model, its truth and reconciliation commission providing the unpleasant but necessary bringing together of the disconnected, past crimes repented for and forgiven, tears shed and closure apparently brought. Little is said about how despite the attempts at learning from the past, South Africa's main problem remains the crushing poverty which the black population disproportionately suffers from, with the crime and violence which goes hand in hand crippling the cities, but it still undoubtedly remains the first port of call for lessons in how to bring the wounded together.

You can then only have sympathy for the difficulties in drawing up any sort of action plan or agenda for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, with the Consultative Group on the Past's report being published today (PDF). The main criticism has surrounded the proposed £12,000 to be given to the relatives of those who lost loved ones as a result of the sectarian violence, regardless of whether those involved were paramilitaries or not, which is by any measure something of a crude instrument. For the most part however, the recommendations make sense, and while some have suggested that it's still too soon for such raw wounds to be treated, the argument that they will heal naturally over time is not wholly convincing. While digging deeper into what may have scabbed over will undoubtedly, and naturally, cause further initial pain, the eventual conclusion of shared reconciliation, justice and forgiveness should stop it from later coming to the surface all over again.

The "proposed ex-gratia recognition payment" is therefore especially troublesome because it directly affects the possibility of this process taking place. Its heart, as you might expect, is in the right place: by not distinguishing between those who lost their lives, it tries to stop grievance from arising, further enflaming the situation. By the same token, the fact that it doesn't distinguish means that those who were pure victims of the bombings, kidnappings and assassinations are regarded as being worth the same as potentially the killers themselves; likewise, you simply cannot put a figure of money on a life. £12,000 seems instead to be an insult rather than recognition. You're left with two apparent options, as the others seem even worse: either no payments or payments which don't distinguish at all.

This shouldn't however distract from the other, far more sound recommendations. The legacy commission, to be led by an international figure, seems certain to be headed by Desmond Tutu, the one person who might well be able to stop Northern Ireland from falling into the same mistakes which South Africa's attempt masked over. One thing which all can surely agree on is that there be no more inquiries, like the disaster which has been the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, still yet to report. Few also could disagree from one of the eventual end aims:

The Group therefore recommends that the Commission should, at the end of its work, challenge the people of Northern Ireland, including political parties and whatever remnant or manifestation of paramilitary groups remain, to sign a declaration to the effect that they will never again kill or injure others on political grounds.

One can only hope that such a declaration is eventually signed, and that the Northern Ireland model could one day be used in that other long festering sore, Israel/Palestine.

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