As Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Washington, D.C., to discuss a peace deal for the troubled Holy Land, all is not well in another once-troubled region more than a decade after a landmark accord.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to almost 30 years of bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, which saw 3,526 people lose their lives.
The agreement bound Irish Republicans to seek their goal of a united Ireland by purely peaceful means. At the same time, Northern Irish Unionists agreed to accept that the region will break from Great Britain if the majority of the citizens of the region so desire. A fragile peace has ensued ever since.
That is until now. Heightened support for so-called Republican dissidents — those opposed to any compromise with Britain — and strained economic conditions in the region now risk derailing the deal.
Few people believe that a return to the intensity of sectarian conflict of the past is imminent. However, a recent spate of bomb attacks on police show just how fragile the peace is.
According to Alex Attwood, social development minister in the power-sharing government, “the economic downturn is leading to a lot of hopelessness that plays in to the hands of those who support violence.
“Young people in particular, largely as a result of joblessness and deprivation, can fall prey to dissident paramilitaries. These younger people don’t remember the depth of the conflict; they can be easily led by romantic rhetoric about driving the British out of Ireland,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
As politicians sought to sell the 1998 deal to the people of Northern Ireland they frequently invoked the so-called peace dividend, referring to the billions of euro investment that would come from Europe, the United States and, of course, the Irish and British governments. The peace dividend has come and gone, and many peace-building projects now face serious shortfalls.
Glen Phillips, a Belfast-based community worker who has worked to provide alternatives for Catholic teenagers at risk of becoming involved in paramilitary activity, has seen firsthand the results of those shortfalls.
“A lot of the programs that we have been running successfully are now facing cutbacks,” he said. “It’s disheartening to see young people who could benefit from cross community programs falling by the wayside. There isn’t the money from the [Irish and British] governments anymore, and money from the European Union is also drying up as a result of the downturn.”
Phillips believes that in a vacuum the peace could be in trouble. “We have seen the rise of attacks on the police; more young people are being attracted towards this pointless violence,” he said. “Unless we can capture them young and engage them in something meaningful, we’re going to be in trouble.”
His concern is borne out by a think-tank report claiming the region is suffering from “crippling levels” of social collapse marked by joblessness, family breakdown, mental illness and drink and drug addiction.
The London-based Centre for Social Justice urged the public and politicians to look beyond the conflict and address “deep-seated social problems.” More than half of those claiming income support have done so for more than five years, while one in five households is a single-parent family, according to its report. It also finds the divorce rate more than five times the level of 40 years ago, and drug-related deaths are up a hundredfold in 40 years. Unemployment has doubled the past two years.
Learning to live in peace
As well as addressing this deprivation, some politicians insist that not enough is being done to build the so-called shared future between Catholic and Protestant communities. A policy document on the issue has been stalled for almost two years. Margaret Ritchie, a former government minister who quit her role to represent her constituency in the British Parliament in London instead, has been critical of the delay. “The government claim that they have agreed a document on a shared future, we haven’t seen that document yet, which leads me to believe it is not agreed,” she told OSV.
Building a “shared future” is how Ritchie sees the role of the Church. “The idea of a shared future is at the heart of the Christian message, people from different traditions being reconciled and learning to live in peace with one another,” she said. “Churches and faith communities have a vital role to play, and unfortunately the impact of faith-based organizations is sometimes neglected.”
Behind-the-scenes efforts are said to be under way to persuade paramilitaries to lay down weapons. Both the Irish and British governments have denied involvement in talks. However, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, a former negotiator on behalf of the Provisional IRA, insists talks are ongoing.
Father Paddy O’Kane, a priest in Derry City, where a recent judicial inquiry ruled that 14 unarmed civil rights campaigners had been unlawfully killed by British soldiers in 1972 in what became known as Bloody Sunday, supports talking to the dissidents.
“In the past we tried to demonize the IRA; it got us nowhere. It was only when we reached out to the IRA and tried to work with what was good and upright and honorable in them that progress was made,” he said.
He has met with dissidents in the past. “The men I met seemed respectful and courteous. I could talk to them,” he said. “Perhaps I was being fooled, but they came across as honorable and reasonable men.”
Michael Kelly is deputy editor of The Irish Catholic.
Unfair Accusations (sidebar)
Church leaders were cast into the limelight when an Aug. 24 report by Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman revealed that police had suspected a priest of being involved in a 1972 bombing in Claudy that killed nine people. Although Father Jim Chesney had been a suspect, Britain’s Secretary of State for the region stopped police from questioning the cleric and asked then Primate of All Ireland Cardinal William Conway to transfer the priest across the border to the Irish Republic.
Newspaper leader writers denounced the Church’s role in the case, accusing Cardinal Conway, now long dead, of being involved in a cover-up.
Bishop Edward Daly, who served as bishop of Derry from 1974 to 1993, told Our Sunday Visitor “media have not questioned key aspects of the Ombudsman’s Report in relation to allegations that Father Chesney was a senior IRA figure directly linked to the bombings.”
He is not convinced that Father Chesney, who died in 1980, was involved. “I may be mistaken, but I do not think so,” he said. “I was a contemporary of his at school. I did not know him very well but knew him reasonably well, and certainly better than most of the current commentators. He denied his involvement to me on two occasions, in 1974 and 1977.”
As a veteran campaigner for Irish Catholics wrongly convicted and released decades later on appeal, Bishop Daly is suspicious: “Personal involvement in several major miscarriage of justice cases has bred in me constructive scepticism. I have seen convictions based on signed admissions and forensic evidence completely overturned years later.”