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How has trust between civilians and State authority evolved in Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2016?
Conversations on Conflict - Charles Hinds talks to Cassia
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With the end of any period of civil strife, ranging from mass protest to full-blown civil war, peace talks must always prioritise restoring trust between the normal people and the state.
This article focuses on the post-conflict period in Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2016, for a very simple reason. Since the referendum in 2016, Brexit has made things a whole lot more complicated. Alastair Campbell has repeatedly highlighted how much damage Brexit has done to the fragile balance created by the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, and thus events in the nation from 2016-23 should be subject to a separate investigation into a post-conflict area.
From the 1960s to the late 1990s, Northern Ireland (the 6 counties in the North-East of Northern Ireland) was embroiled in a conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ between the militant groups who believed Northern Ireland should join with the Republic of Ireland (Republicans) and those who argued that Northern Ireland should remain with the United Kingdom (Unionists). In 1998, after decades of fighting causing a death toll of 3,500, ‘The Troubles’ was declared over, thanks to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
In an egregious oversimplification, peace was reached thanks to compromise between Unionist and Republican delegates, moderated by British Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair and American Presidents Bill Clinton and George Mitchell. The Good Friday Agreement was intended to bring about peace in a region that had been engaged in active conflict for 30+ years and had faced disagreement for centuries. Since then, the nation has witnessed two decades of peace with the wounds of the past on full display, with everyone treading on eggshells to avoid reopening them.
Was the Peace Process a Success?
During a 20th anniversary celebration of the Good Friday Agreement, Bill Clinton described it as “a work of genius”. Unfortunately for the people of Belfast, the matter is not so simple, as for many people there remains a dark legacy that has tainted their relationship with the police and the established peace.
A key part of any effort to bring about peace and reconciliation, especially in conflict zones where asymmetric warfare is endemic, is the need to lay the matters of the past to rest. However, in Northern Ireland this has never truly happened. In Spain, a nation which recently faced a similar need for reconciliation, the debate between the Pacto del Olvido and La Ley de Memoria Histórica has done much to try and determine how the country should move on from the fascist Falangist regime of Francisco Franco.
This was a regime that fell, more or less, with the death of Franco himself in the 1970s, meaning this discussion has grown alongside the development of Spanish democracy. Northern Ireland has not been so lucky, and the debate around reconciling the sectarian divisions within and between communities and the State authority have taken place while these divisions persist. Even though the ceasefire in 1998 did see a significant reduction in attacks in Northern Ireland, cases like the murder of Stephen Carroll and the Massereene Barracks shooting show how the wounds of the past were not entirely healed in the following decade.
The case of Stephen Carroll, a Catholic Constable within the PSNI who was murdered in 2009, is an important one to understand the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement. His two murderers were Brendan McConnel and John Paul Wootton, the former being a Sinn Fein councillor “before parting company with the mainstream republican movement”, the latter “too young to have known the Troubles but his trial heard he had shown a hatred for police”, as they were described in a contemporary article from the Independent.
That same article ended with poignant words regarding the discrepancy between sentences for killing police in Northern Ireland compared with those for killing police in England, "justice has been done? Not for us it has not. Stephen is still in his grave…You cannot make exceptions in one country. It is disgusting." A key reason for such leniency in sentencing comes from the fact that the Police (NI) Acts of 1998, 2000 and 2003 had no regulation on the punishment for the killing of police officers, even though the 1998 Act did rule that there is a 2-year maximum. In spite of the words of everyone from Gordon Brown to Martin McGuinness and Lord Justice Paul Girvan, the case saw a great crisis of trust in the Unionist and moderate Republican communities.
What is left behind?
In a protracted interview with Gary Donelly of the 32 County Movement in 2010, Gerry Moriarty showed how Martin McGuiness was now seen as a traitor to the militant wing of the Republican movement. McGuinness, serving then as the Deputy First Minister alongside First Minister Ian Paisley, had done a lot to bring about peace, but was decried by his former allies for working with a man he’d dedicated his life to fighting.
Tony Blair, in a much-maligned moment, claimed that “he felt the hand of history on his shoulder” while on the steps of Stormont during the first day of the peace process. However, this top-down approach to peace meant the hardline wings of both the Unionist and Republican causes were excluded from discussions, although these groups are most likely to continue the terror campaign and undermine the peace agreement. As Donelly noted in the same article: “Why do the Brits continue 800 years of occupation and expect something other than an armed response?” For the most hardline figures, the Good Friday Agreement was not peace, it was a betrayal.
When asked about whether or not a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would work in Northern Ireland, Peter Sheridan (a former senior member of the RUC and current CEO of Cooperation Ireland, an organisation formed to facilitate reconciliation) said “I don’t think we’re ever going to find a way that deals with it for all of the stakeholders in it”11 Lacking such a vital source of communal spirit to resolve and move on together has left the conflict technically resolved but allows the scars within the nation to remain on full display.
Scars within the Community
Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been an increase in the number of ironically named “Peace Walls” designed to prevent members of the preceding generation from continuing the violence. Unfortunately, these attempts to maintain peace have instead left scars on the community in a very physical way. A study conducted by academics from Queen’s University Belfast in 2016 uncovered the extent of the psychological impacts these Peace Walls had on everyday people.
They found that communities which had been segregated by physical barriers saw a 19% increase in the use of antidepressants and a 39% increase in the use of anti-anxiety medication. While this does not necessarily mean that almost 20% more of the population are depressed due to a level of distrust, all this works to compound the issues surrounding the potentially entrenched intergenerational nature of the conflict. Why should we be surprised, given that the current generation has a physical and permanent reminder that is actively causing serious damage to their well-being?
In 2018, Lisa Magee released ‘Derry Girls’ for Channel 4, a comedic look at what it was like to grow up Catholic in Northern Ireland while it was transitioning into a post-conflict zone, replete with run-ins with the Orange Order and the British Army. Unfortunately, what Magee may not have appreciated is that the story of societal breakdown in Northern Ireland didn’t end with the ceasefire, nor with the Good Friday Agreement. The scars of distrust have never fully healed.
Charles is a student member of the War Studies department at King’s College, London. He wrote this piece as part of his internship with Arts4Refugees to help his peer group understand the unique experiences of post-conflict communities. This article was edited by Cassia Jefferson, a fellow student journalist from Oxford University. She also interviewed Charles for the podcast as well.
BBC News, “Good Friday Agreement was ‘work of genius’, 10 April 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-43660970
Maguire, Aidan, Declan French, Dermot O’Reilly, “Residential Segregation, Dividing Walls and Mental Health: A Population-Based Record Linkage Study” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 70, no. 9 (2016): 845, https://jech.bmj.com/content/70/9/845
McCaffery, Steven, Michael McHugh, “Dissidents Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton jailed for murder of Stephen Carroll”, The Independent, May 21, 2012. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/dissidents-brendan-mcconville-and-john-paul-wootton- jailed-for-murder-of-stephen-carroll-7771031.html
Moriarty, Gerry, “Dissident Republicans Insist Armed Response to ‘Occupation’ is Inevitable”, The Irish Times, October 25, 2010, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/dissident-republicans-insist-armed-response-to- occupation-is-inevitable-1.667959
Young, David, “Video: Tony Blair’s ‘Hand of History upon our Shoulder’ Comment a Source of ‘Pride and Embarrassment’”, The Irish Times, April 9, 2018, https://www.irishnews.com/news/gfa20/2018/04/09/news/tony-blair-s-hand-of-history-upon-our- shoulder-comment-source-of-pride-and-embarrassment--1299816/
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