Politics in Northern Ireland: how full is your glass?By Eamonn O'Kane on 3 September 2013
Politics in Northern Ireland: how full is your glass?
By Eamonn O’Kane
(This blog was originally posted on The PSA’s Political Insight Blog on 24 July 2013)
If judged by the headlines it generates, Northern Ireland appears to be a contradictory and confusing place. At one level Northern Ireland is the poster- child for conflict resolution. This year saw the fifteenth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), an event that was widely celebrated and analysed within and beyond Northern Ireland. Yet Belfast is currently undergoing a problematic marching season with almost a week of parades-related violence which has seen serious disturbances in areas of North Belfast. Dozens of police officers have been injured and extra police have been despatched from England to help the Northern Ireland police service (PSNI) deal with the disorder. To the casual observer the situation appears contradictory: the widely lauded ‘successful’ peace process resulting in a society racked by inter-communal violence and residual paramilitarism. Inevitably such snapshot views fail to do justice to the nuances, challenges, successes and failures of politics in Northern Ireland.
Politics in Northern Ireland can satisfy both the optimist and pessimist. One’s glass can be half-empty or half-full (or, like Gary Larson’s classic Far Side cartoon, we can decry the whole situation and assert we ordered a cheeseburger). The problem when analysing Northern Ireland is what do we focus on and what do we expect? If we take as our starting point the ‘bad old days’ then the optimist’s case is easy to make. The early 1970s saw hundreds of people being killed each year; the 1980s were marked by violence and instability related to the 1981 hunger strikes and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; the mid 1990s saw increasing political uncertainty and a downward spiral of sectarian attacks. Around 3300n people died in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 as a result of the Troubles. PSNI figures indicate 134 people have died in Northern Ireland due to the security situation from the year 1998/99 to 2012/13. In 2012 Northern Ireland concluded its first full-term of devolved government since the old Stormont regime was prorogued in 1972. The ability of a power-sharing government, led by what were always seen as the ‘hard-line’ political parties of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin (so long described as the political wing of the IRA) is no mean achievement. Many indicators are indeed available for those who want to be optimistic about how far Northern Ireland has come and the direction its politics appear to be going in.
Yet, like any snapshot, if viewed from a different angle the picture can look very different. The situation may not be as bad as it once was but the case can be made that it is bad enough, or at least not as good as it might have been expected to be. The clear underlying inter-communal tensions and episodic violence indicate a society that remains deeply divided. The ongoing threat from dissident republicans is all too apparent, with the Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI recently noting that it was ‘difficult to see an end’ to this threat. The violence associated with the Flags protests since the end of last year and the recent marches are concerning. Questions remain over causes, consequences and possible solutions to these issues but there are clearly political, cultural and economic issues that bedevil Northern Ireland.
This leads to the question of whether the much heralded peace process has failed? The question depends upon what we think it was meant to achieve. The peace process was never intended to be a panacea for Northern Ireland’s problems. In many respects it was an example of conflict management rather than conflict resolution. Heated debate continues regarding why it occurred and whether the direction it followed was the correct one. But at its heart there was a significant amount of pragmatism; on all sides. At a recent conference organised by the University of Ulster to examine the GFA 15 Years on, Lord Bew noted that during the negotiations the then head of the Northern Ireland Office, Sir John Chilcott, had argued that Northern Ireland faced the choice between good governance and peace; they could not have both. The system that was institutionalised under the GFA was clearly far from ideal but it did bring a peace, of sorts. What was left was the struggle of how to deal with the other pressing issues, be they economic, cultural or political. The peace process did not of course lead to the divisions within Northern Ireland; it was an attempt to try and deal with these divisions, not, in the short-term, to eradicate them. The ongoing tensions and sporadic violence highlight that in this regard there is still work to be done. The deep divisions that continue to exist within Northern Ireland are demonstrated not just by the continuing violent politics in the streets, but also in the clear differences over what reconciliation means in Northern Ireland and the current battles over not only how the past is commemorated and dealt with but also over the narrative of what happened during the Troubles. It is not the case that these issues are being completely ignored, there have been attempts to address them (or at least create a framework within which to debate them) and enquires and initiatives have taken place; but there has been rather less agreement on these issues than many would have hoped. The recent appointment of the former US envoy to Northern Ireland, Dr Richard Haass, to chair all-party talks on issues related to parades, protests, flags, emblems and symbols is the latest attempt to improve the situation. What the report, due before the end of the year, will recommend, and how much agreement Dr Haass is able to secure from the parties involved, remains to be seen. What is a fairly safe bet is that the tensions and divisions will remain within Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future and sporadically lead to violence and disturbances in the street. This is not to be fatalistic, indifferent or undemanding; it is just the realty of the difficulties of transforming deeply divided societies. Politics in Northern Ireland is likely to continue to provide plenty for both the optimists and pessimists to use to make their case for a good while to come. Those who strive for a fundamentally different (‘cheeseburger’) politics will need to continue with their quest.
Eamonn O’Kane is Senior Lecturer in Politics and War Studies at The University of Wolverhampton. He is Co-Convenor (with Alan Greer) of the PSA’s Irish Politics Specialist Group and co-author (with Paul Dixon) of Northern Ireland Since 1969. He is currently writing a book on the Peace Process for MUP.