Directory Free Newsletter Contact  

     European-American Topics - Politics -


How Northern Ireland survived terrorism

By Dean Broadbent
Posted: March 2006

For years, the Irish Republican Army’s refusal to abandon violence has been the main obstacle to peace and progress in Northern Ireland

Last year saw two momentous and promising events. In July, the IRA announced that it would pursue its goals through "exclusively peaceful means" and then, in September, came the decommissioning of most of the IRA’s weaponry. In the months since, however, Northern Ireland has not flourished into a harmonious democracy as might have been hoped.

The disarming of the IRA should not be underestimated. In a very real way, it signals the end of more than thirty years of Republican violence.

The fact that the IRA has been effectively disarmed is something that seemed altogether impossible just a few years ago.The change can largely be attributed to the developments of the ‘war on terror'. Since 9/11 and the bombings of Madrid and London, armed conflict within Western democracies has become utterly unacceptable, depriving the IRA of once strong support in the United States.

The rewards of this have been swift, with Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain saying that a return to devolved government is a “real possibility in the near future.” Hopes were high that The Irish Question might finally have received a satisfactory answer.

There remain, however, deep political obstacles to the resumption of devolved government at Stormont. Much of the problem is that the same politicians that have led a generation of conflict, division and opposition are those now responsible for trying to create a worthy peace. Sinn Fein – the political manifestation of the IRA – remains an organisation stifled and controlled by its leadership, whilst the Democratic Unionist Party is imbued with Protestant sectarianism. DUP leader Ian Paisley said the suggestion that the IRA has completely disarmed – the decommissioning took place in private - was a “blatant lie,” although the integrity of the witnesses means that this statement has been perceived as evidence that the weapons issue is being used as an excuse to avoid cooperation. Having defined themselves for decades by their opposition to IRA violence, the Unionist parties seem lost for positive policies. There is also the small matter that none of the main loyalist paramilitary groups have shown any sign of following the IRA’s example.

The problems are not merely political, either. During the ceasefires there may have been less violence, but there has been a steady increase in social segregation and “peace walls.” It has become a cultural war, with fights about the meaning of history and fierce disputes over parades. Northern Ireland is as divided by sectarianism as it ever was, and this has become entrenched with the duplication of services between the two main communities. The continuing activity of the IRA remains a serious concern: the $46m bank robbery of December 2004 - blamed on the IRA by the police and UK government – confirmed the suspicions of many that the IRA and criminality are inextricably linked. In January 2005, IRA members were accused of killing Belfast man Robert McCartney, making the IRA’s professed dedication to peace even harder to take seriously.

By any measure, Northern Ireland has come a long way in the past few years. The removal of violence from the political scene reveals Northern Ireland’s underlying problems in all their intractable complexity. This is real progress, but the biggest lesson than needs to be learned is that it will require more honesty and bravery to heal Northern Ireland’s wounds than even it did to end its war.

© 2007 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited