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The return of the Troubles?

Lundi, 11. avril 2011 11:00

« After a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace. » It is with these words of hope that the former US President Bill Clinton commented the signing of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th 1998 which put an end to years of bloodshed and centuries of tensions. Yet, less than two weeks ago, on April 2nd, Ronan Kerr, a Catholic Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer, was murdered by dissident republicans when a bomb exploded under his car. Thirteen years after the Belfast Agreement, terrorist attacks have suddenly increased and cast doubt on the durability of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

‘The Troubles’ evolved from 1969 to the end of the twentieth century and led to the deaths of over 3 500 people. The Good Friday Agreement finally addressed the deep rooted causes of the conflict. Based on compromise and inclusiveness, it led to the creation of a successful power-sharing government. The main Loyalist and Nationalist terrorist groups such as the UVF, UDA and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), agreed to put an end to their campaigns and had their weapons decommissioned. In 1995, the European Union launched its Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland. Two other EU PEACE programmes followed over the years and in total almost two billion euros will have been invested in peace and reconciliation initiatives in Northern Ireland by 2013. On paper, all signs seem to point to the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the progress of stability and reconciliation.

Yet, according to various sources there has been a recent surge in paramilitary activities in the country. As stated by the MI5, these dissident republican groups are the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA as well as Óglaigh na hÉireann (the “soldiers of Ireland”) and were formed after successive splits within the PIRA. As far as the other side is concerned, there has been no evidence of recent activity from dissident loyalist groups.

On March 27th, a bomb containing 50 kg of explosives was left outside a courthouse in Derry and the attack was blamed on dissident republicans. Back in March 2009, the Real IRA killed two British soldiers and the Continuity IRA was responsible for the death of a policeman. More recently, August 2010 was a particularly violent month: the Real IRA intensified its campaign and planted booby traps and car bombs in various areas. On August 3rd, a car containing 200lb of explosives exploded outside the Derry police station, damaging several businesses. The MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has classified the threat level as “severe” in Northern Ireland and “substantial” in Great Britain. Even more alarming, the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism was published for the first time on 24 September 2010. Before that, the MI5 would only assess the international terrorist threat.

In November 2010, King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR)  published a report entitled “Return of the Militants: Violent Dissident Republicanism”. This study stresses that republican dissident groups have increased their activity and still represent a possible threat for both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. It points out that the rise in activities by these hardline splinter groups was not expected by security forces.

For the author of this report, Martyn Frampton, Northern Ireland finds itself at a critical moment because two generations are coming together and joining the ranks of militant dissident groups. These generations are the disaffected youths and delinquents that did not witness the violence of the “Troubles” along with veterans from the Provisional IRA who rejected the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and feel disillusioned by Sinn Fein and what they see as unkept promises. In the next four years, 245 million pounds of additional funding will be paid to help the PSNI, the successor to the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary, struggle against attacks from dissident groups. This need for extra funds highlights the new intensity of the threats which have been at their highest since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Could the resurgence of terrorist attacks reflect the stagnation of post-conflict peace in Northern Ireland? The advancements that have been made since the 1998 Agreement need to be put into perspective. The number of “peace walls” that were built to divide rival Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods has increased. In his article for the Financial Times, “Downturn puts Northern Ireland peace under fire”, John Murray Brown states that since the ceasefire, these walls have grown from 18 to 88. Sectorisation is still pervasive and today, integrated education covers only 9 per cent of schoolchildren. The massive injection of funds by the EU into Northern Ireland has now proved to have its limits as far as changing mentalities is concerned; economic aid is not sufficient without a solid strategy for peace.

Mari Fitzduff explains that a conflict never ends, it only evolves. This could perfectly reflect the case of Northern Ireland. The 1998 peace resolution led to idealistic hopes that were rapidly transformed into a certain disenchantment. This is epitomized by the recent resurgence of paramilitary activity which represents an unsettling and unexpected threat to peace in Northern Ireland. Yet are the growing number of attacks only part of  the post-conflict path to peace or could they mean that the Troubles are back?

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