Return of the Troubles

Is Northern Ireland falling apart all over again?


DUBLIN – Five members of Northern Ireland’s assembly got an unwelcome early Christmas present on Dec. 19 when envelopes containing bullets were sent to their offices in Belfast. The packages were just the latest sign of rising tensions in a region that has been living in an uneasy state of calm for the last decade and a half, and has some worried about the potential of a return to the bad old days — when bombings, riots, and military operations were regular features of Northern Irish life.

Two recipients of the packages were members of the nationalist Sinn Fein party — once known as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army — and three belonged to the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party. Although the envelopes contained no notes, it wasn’t hard to guess the motive behind them. One of the MPs, Alliance’s Naomi Long, who represents predominantly unionist East Belfast, was issued a death threat earlier this month and forced to leave her home by loyalists angered at her party’s decision to support a compromise with Irish nationalists on the thorny issue of whether to fly the British flag atop Belfast City Hall. Until two weeks ago, the flag flew continuously; now it will fly only on 15 designated days during the year.

Loyalists reacted angrily to the council’s decision. On Dec. 3, as the council was voting on its new flags policy, a crowd outside, many with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces, broke through the back gate of City Hall. Their attempts to enter the building failed, but street protests have hit swathes of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, in the weeks since, in some of the worst unrest the region has seen since the 1990s.

The seasonal ill will has not been confined to the loyalists. Earlier this week, an off-duty police officer narrowly avoided serious injury, or even death, when two men opened fire on him in Bangor, a satellite town about 15 miles from Belfast. The assailants are thought to be anti-ceasefire republicans. On Dec. 20, two men were charged in connection with the murder of prison officer David Black, shot dead in November by a new militant group calling itself the Irish Republican Army. (The better-known Provisional IRA — which waged an armed campaign against British rule for decades — formally laid down its arms in 2005, though a number of splinter groups and have taken up the IRA mantle since then.)

Street protests. Shootings. Death threats. This is not what Northern Ireland was supposed to look like in 2012, almost 15 years after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement. That agreement, which introduced a power-sharing assembly between unionists and nationalists, has been largely considered a success, to the extent that the large-scale violence known collectively as "The Troubles" has come to an end. Between 2006 and 2010, only nine people were killed in political violence, compared with an average of more than 100 per year during the 30 years of The Troubles. British soldiers on the streets are no longer a quotidian feature of Northern Irish life.

But Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The number of "peacewalls," physical barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has increased sharply since the first ceasefires in 1994. Most people in the region cannot envisage the barriers being removed, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Ulster. In housing and education, Northern Ireland remains one of the most segregated tracts of land anywhere on the planet — less than one in 10 children attends a school that is integrated between Catholics and Protestant. This figure has remained stubbornly low despite the cessation of violence.

Many of those protesting the removal of the flag from Belfast City Hall — a policy, incidentally, that was adopted by a slew of Unionist-dominated councils in other towns in the past 5 years without a murmur of complaint — come from underprivileged Protestant communities where jobs are scarce and educational attainment low. The rise in tensions in recent years has coincided with a slump in the Northern Irish economy. Unemployment, which now stands at around 8 percent, has more than doubled since 2008. Spending cuts are beginning to bite, particularly in already deprived communities. Electoral turnout in such areas has fallen precipitously, and those Protestants who do vote generally support the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Their Catholic counterparts generally vote en mass for Sinn Fein. The DUP and Sinn Fein were once viewed as the unruly fringes of loyalism and republicanism respectively, but are now the dominant political forces in Northern Ireland.

While it is rightly credited for brining peace and stability to Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement — negotiated with the strong support of Bill Clinton’s administration and U.S. envoy George Mitchell — is also in part to blame for the polarization of politics that has taken place since it was ratified in 1998. The power-sharing system it established privileges sectarian politics: On election to the assembly, known locally as Stormont, all members must designate themselves "nationalist," "unionist," or "other." Thanks to the terms of the agreement, most bills in the assembly require 60 percent support to pass and at least 40 percent support from both the nationalist and unionist designations voting. The most extreme ethnic voices — Sinn Fein and the DUP — have profited handsomely from this system, while their more moderate rivals in the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party have floundered. The "others" are effectively powerless — one reason why the non-sectarian Alliance party has improved only marginally on the 6.5 percent of the vote it received in the first devolved elections, in 1998.

Somewhat ironically, this hollowing out of the middle ground of Northern Irish politics has occurred at a time when identity appears increasingly fluid. The results of the 2011 Northern Ireland census, released last week, showed that while two-fifths of respondents identified themselves only as "British" and a quarter put themselves down as "Irish," just over 21 percent described themselves as Northern Irish. It was the first time the question had ever been asked.

The surprisingly large number claiming "Northern Irish" identity — particularly among young people — has been hailed in some quarters as evidence that the next generation may finally be moving beyond the embattled Orange and Green silos of their forebears. But a "Northern Irish" identity does not mean a more tolerant one. Many of those who checked this box on the census are likely the same ones on the streets protesting the loss of their "cultural identity," as represented by the red, white, and blue flag over Belfast City. The arrest of an 11-year-old boy connection with flag-related disturbances in Lisburn earlier this week may have been a glimpse of the region’s future.

The recent instability may come as such a surprise given that, from the outside, reconciliation between the two sides seemed to be making great strides. The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the seemingly impossible — republicans and loyalists, in the form of Sinn Fein and the DUP, sharing power. But despite the photo ops featuring former IRA leaders and the Queen, and the bonhomie between once sworn enemies Ian Paisley, the erstwhile first minister and late unionist firebrand, and his deputy, onetime terrorist Martin McGuinness Stormont has delivered precious little in terms of policy,. The lack of a real opposition has not helped matters. A long-neglected anti-sectarian strategy, Sharing, Cohesion and Integration, has still not been passed by Stormont.

As an elite-level compromise, the agreement has been a tremendous success, but the distance between Northern Ireland’s political classes and their supporters appears to be widening. Unlike previous mass loyalist demonstrations — the iconic 1985 ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign outside Belfast City Hall, which brought down the Anglo-Irish Agreement, for example — the current unrest has been orchestrated not by demagogic leaders, but by disenfranchised young men on social media.

As it stands, Northern Irish politics benefits the rulers but leaves the ruled increasingly voiceless. If the region can’t create a political framework that allows the "others" to be heard, extremists on both sides will continue to dictate Northern Ireland’s future.

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