No More Troubles in Belfast…?


(Photo Credit: lyng833’s Photostream)
This is a guest note by Sean Kay, who is a professor of politics at Ohio Wesleyan University and an associate of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (Rowman and Littlefield).
Over the past week, I visited Northern Ireland as part of a book I am writing on post-Celtic Tiger and post-peace process Ireland. If one were to tune into short media clips of riots in Belfast and gunshots in Derry, they might conclude that the peace process in Northern Ireland is coming unglued. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having walked the streets of Derry, and visited Ardoyne in Belfast on the morning after the last of three nights of rioting, it is important to report that the positive transformation of Northern Ireland remains on track – though it is a fragile one to be sure.
As has been increasingly the case, each 12th of July, parades by Orangemen honoring their sense of tradition are sources of sectarian tension. Last weeks’ perpetrators, however, largely used the Orangemen as an excuse for violence that had nothing to do with Ireland’s troubles. In fact, the violence by Catholics in the streets of Ardoyne and other areas of Belfast took place either after the Orangemen had long gone home – and in some cases where none had marched at all.
The primary target of Catholic street rioters was not Protestants, but rather the police – a force that is a vital symbol of growing success in Northern Ireland. In Belfast and Derry, shots were fired at police and in an horrific incident, a policewoman was severely injured when hit by a brick in the head. Rioters apparently continued to pelt her and her colleagues as rescuers sought to extract the wounded officer. In another major incident, a young man attempted to take over the Enterprise Train between Dublin and Belfast and was apparently quite willing to firebomb it and kill women and children. What is striking is the degree to which the police acted with restraint – refusing to take the bait of those spewing violence. Today the security services are part of the solution, not the problem – and their restraint has served to increase the confidence that this vital institution of peace building is playing.
Some Northern Ireland officials have been quick to say that dissident nationalist groups are behind the violence – while others seek to downplay this element to enhance a view of normalization setting in. While there may be a small number of these dissident characters behind the scenes, the images of the violence show a much more complicated scenario.
The areas of Belfast that historically reflected the Troubles such as Falls Road and Shankill are today quite calm. There is, however, as with many things on this island, a range of levels below the obvious and that is especially true in the complex back streets of some very small areas of Belfast. The key challenge to the peace process has much more to do with bottom up pressure from a small but growing population who has not reaped the benefits of peace. Right now, this is quite limited to a street by street tension, but has a serious risk of proliferating up into the political architecture on which the positive model for peace is being successfully consolidated.
Perhaps most significant is that in some areas of Belfast, there are small segments of Protestant society who feel they have been abandoned. They no longer dominate employment in major industry as much of traditional industry has left them behind. Meanwhile, increasing opportunities for Catholics in employment combined with a higher degree of emphasis on education have led to a growing sense of isolation and abandonment for these unionists. These people have felt no benefit at all from peace and feel more isolated than ever. Indeed, they have now lost the one thing they always clung to – an arrogant and uniformed sense of superiority over Catholics. Meanwhile, the Catholic population also suffers from a large group of disaffected youth who have not benefited from new opportunities and who continue to blame others for their own lot in life.
On a street-to-street level, disaffected Protestant and Catholic groups – both concentrated in public housing settings which remain segregated – suffer from the same kinds of problems that afflict most major urban populations – gangs, thugs, drugs, and crime. Only, in Belfast, one can label it political paint a mural and suddenly it takes on a broader and dangerous symbolism.
A major irony of the peace process is that it has left a vacuum in areas where in the past crime was dealt with by “street justice” – internal order provided by the nationalist and unionist paramilitary forces. Both sides’ paramilitary forces historically were deeply involved in criminal activity and violence. Now that they have accepted peace and disarmed, they are no longer there to enforce order within their own populations. At the same time, as the economy spirals downward, an entire generation of youth is now coming of age that has no idea what the peace process was or the horrifying events that preceded it.
The “rioters” in the Ardoyne area of Belfast this past week were in fact largely children – teens, and some as young as eight years old. Some in the press characterized this as a “Disneyland of rioting” for these youth. It is likely that there are dissident republicans helping to coordinate these children – lining up petrol bombs and busing them around town. But the real message of these dissidents is not to the peace process. The message is to the former IRA leaders who are now involved in peace building that they no longer control the streets.
Significantly, the biggest failing of the peace process to date is that in both Protestant and Catholic communities in areas like Ardoyne and similar neighborhoods an entire generation of children is at risk of being lost. These young people do not have role models to aspire to. Their parents are grossly disengaged from child rearing. These young people see local organized crime figures as the main role models. Showing that they can throw bricks at police – is the best way they can show their “toughness” – while those behind the scenes stake out their territory street by street – mainly to sell drugs.
It is at this sub-level of social disconnect – driven not by Troubles of the past – but rather economic dislocation and class – that the peace process faces its most significant challenge. If the reconciled Protestant and Catholic political leaders feel increasingly pulled back into their core communities rather than building on the benefits of their growing political relationships, there could be a need to further posture back along nationalist and unionist political lines. If left unaddressed, then these bottom up security problems could proliferate upward into the larger peace process.
In reality, however, there has been a sea change in Northern Ireland. I saw this close up in Washington during St. Patrick’s Day festivities when First and Second Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness demonstrated their clear desire to put the past far behind them. They were united on the need to promote investment and to advance economic development in their shared land.
More effort must be done to gain understanding around the July marching season requiring accommodation to Catholic sensitivities by the marching Orangemen. But crucially, in a time of economic crisis and tightening budgets, innovative and creative approaches to reaching out to this new generation of young, disaffected Catholics and Protestants must be achieved. Both communities share a similar problem on the streets of Belfast and it will take a society-wide effort to bring these lost children of peace along. If there is to be a new priority for American leadership in consolidating peace, it is here that low costs investment in education can create major long-term benefit.
Northern Ireland is doing well. One visiting would have to work hard to find the trouble brewing. Foreign direct investment is taking root and ironically, the historical ties to the United Kingdom have shielded it form the economic shocks being felt to the south in the Republic of Ireland. Former adversaries have reconciled into a good working government. No one wants a return to the past except those who either never experienced it or have another agenda.
— Sean Kay


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