It has been over 17 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland which brought to an end three decades of violence in which over 3,500 people were killed and tens of thousands more injured. The end of the so-called Troubles has brought relative stability to Northern Ireland, with the peace process often held up as a shining example of successful conflict resolution to other divided societies marred by conflict.
Once bitter enemies, Republican and Unionist politicians have since 2007 sat together in a power-sharing executive in Stormont in charge of the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, once derided by Catholics as largely sectarian, has been transformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and established credibility among large sections of both Protestant and Catholic communities. Even the contentious issue of parades – important expressions of identity for sections of both communities – is being dealt with even-handedly through the establishment of an independent Parades Commission.
But whereas the peace is being managed by and large, and the achievements made should not be lightly dismissed, it is also clear that it has not yet been won.
Paramilitary groupings, albeit on a lesser scale compared to the past, continue to instil fear among communities and engage in gangland-style violence, with punishment attacks and even murder occurring openly on the streets. Around 3,000 police officers were deployed to quell rioting after the July 12 Orange Order parades this year; dozens of officers have been injured in recent years at these events. On a political level, furthermore, the Stormont Assembly has experienced its worst crisis for years with a critical breakdown of trust between Sinn Fein and Unionist parties. This came after the PSNI and a subsequent investigation, in response to the murders of two high-profile Republicans, admitted that the Provisional IRA (as well as other paramilitary groups) continues to exist in some form.
While the peace is being managed by and large, it is also clear that it has not yet been won.
While none of this indicative of a return to the past – indeed, the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland’s population support the peace process – it nonetheless shows, as Northern Ireland writer and journalist Susan McKay has observed, that the peace has not yet planted deep roots. One of the reasons for this is that being Catholic or Protestant, or Republican versus Unionist, still matters a huge deal in twenty-first century Northern Ireland, narrowly determining many people’s identity, religion, education, friendships, and political affiliation.
In a 2013 report by the Belfast-based Institute for Conflict Research, it was found that the peace agreement and subsequent binary political configuration of power-sharing have in fact “further entrenched perceived cultural differences” and that “the current set up allows little room for the evolution, maturation or development of alternative political and religious identities.” Unsurprisingly perhaps, people in Northern Ireland are still overwhelmingly likely to vote for a political party based on narrow ethno-national identification.
Indeed, no-one should have expected that the deep-rooted scars of inter-communal conflict and division stretching back many decades, indeed centuries, could so easily be healed. An urban geography of close-knit housing estates separated by so-called peace walls – more than a hundred of them – continues to divide Catholics and Protestants in parts of Belfast and Derry. It is calculated furthermore that the vast majority of housing estates exhibit significant residential segregation with more than 80 percent of one community on one estate. The same is true of education with around 90 percent of schoolchildren attending schools that are predominantly Catholic or Protestant. This continued prevalence of segregation is a breeding ground from which sectarianism – ethnic, religious, and political – feeds.
Photo credit: David Ramos, Flickr Creative Commons
Read the rest of the article at Insight on Conflict