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Ireland's Long War: Despite Peace Agreement, Dissidents Continue Their Violent Campaign

Northern Ireland is a case study in building sustainable peace. But recent violent activity from dissident republicans poses threats.

A Northern Ireland peace/anti-terrorism logo
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


On 27th April 2012 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) held its annual conference in Dublin It was the first time Ireland had hosted the organisation, an intergovernmental regional security structure comprising 56 states, including all EU countries, Russia, the US and Canada.

To mark the occasion, the Irish government chose to theme the conference on the success of the Northern Ireland peace process.  The title given to the event was ‘Shared Future: Building and Sustaining Peace, the Northern Ireland case study.’  Many of those who had been involved in the 1998 all-party negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement were present in order to discuss with visiting delegates how the Northern Ireland settlement could offer lessons for other divided societies. Amongst the speakers was former US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks, and who drew on this experience when, in 2009, he was appointed United States Special Envoy for Middle East Peace by President Obama.  Also present was his deputy chair during the Northern Ireland talks, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martti Ahtisaari. Welcoming the delegates, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore said: “As Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE, I am committed to doing what I can to advance efforts to resolve ongoing conflicts in the OSCE area. By presenting the experience of achieving a peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland, I hope we can illustrate that shared futures can be forged from seemingly intractable situations.”

That same day a curious ritual was being enacted in Northern Ireland's second city, the place known to Catholics as Derry and to Protestants as Londonderry. In one of the city’s most socially disadvantaged housing estates, Creggan, a mother was taking her 18-year old son to an appointment with paramilitaries. He was to be shot in both legs as a punishment for drug-dealing, and the mother, in agreeing to the appointment, had accepted the rough justice laid down in the area by the Catholic paramilitary group, Republican Action Against Drugs. Speaking to the local paper she was quoted as saying: "It could have been worse. I honestly feared that he was going to be found dead having overdosed in a flat somewhere ... I also believe that it was better he is shot in the legs now, than shot in the head further down the line" ( Derry Journal, 30/4/2012). 

In February the same paramilitary organisation had killed another young man from the city because of his alleged involvement in the drug trade, and in the previous twelve months had been responsible for dozens of other ‘knee-cappings’, and expulsions from the city. This form of paramilitary policing is not confined to Derry/Londonderry, nor is it confined to Catholic areas: fourteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the paramilitary groups that were supposed to melt away in the new dispensation are still active on the streets in both Protestant and Catholic areas. The police statistics for 2011 show that less than four per cent of these ‘punishment beatings’, as they are known, result in a prosecution –  a combination of fear and a tacit acceptance of communal retribution has halted Northern Ireland’s progress towards the criminal justice norms that are assumed in other liberal democracies.

This is only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The success of the 1998 peace accord is still less than complete. The triumph of politics that led to the Agreement, the triumph that was presented to the OSCE delegates, was a triumph achieved on the high wire by political elites. Below that level, the two antagonistic communities, the Protestants and the Catholics, have had to struggle to emerge from a thirty year conflict and find ways to build a shared society in the schools, the workplaces and the neighbourhoods where people live out their daily lives.

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