Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Not ‘same old’ Northern Ireland: nothing will change until we do

Many thought this story was over and the book back on the shelf.
Some didn’t think as much as hope that this would be the case.
But with one police constable and two soldiers dead to dissident republican fire over the last few weeks, the illusion is well and truly shattered.

Of course there are the cynics who claim that there will never be a perfect peace in Northern Ireland. A bit like the Guardian’s Henry McDonald who claims that Ireland will forever have ‘occasional terrorist outages’ – in one sentence dismissing a decade’s worth of peace efforts, the dissidents’ desperate passion and the heart-wrenching misery each death brings.
Not cool, mr McDonald.

Sapper Mark Quinsey was buried last week. He was 23. Sapper Patrick Azminkar, also killed at Massereene army barracks in Antrim, was 21. Speaking of terrorist outages is disrespectful to say the least. It is also misleading, treating the violence like something incidental yet entrenched, marginal yet inevitable.

And yesterday a 17-year old was charged with the murder of police constable Stephen Carroll. The teenager, suspected of membership of the Continuity IRA, is too young to be named but not too young to possess an AKM assault rifle and shoot a man in the back of the head.
To speak of terrorist outages is to trivialise the deaths and to underestimate what it is that makes a 17-year-old take up arms.

11 years after the Good Friday accord, three years into power-sharing and people still join the militants, despite the IRA ceasefire.
Yet the voices urging us all not to allow the violence to derail the peace process are loud. The voices suggesting this is how things are in Northern Ireland and we shall move on regardless are loud.
But what if they are wrong?

Three people died over the past few weeks.
The IRA fights no more but the Real IRA and Continuity IRA do. We can choose to ignore this or we can choose to acknowledge that not all is well in the State of Denmark.

Martin McGuinness, former IRA bigwig turned peacemaker, denounced those behind the attacks as "traitors" to the people of Ireland. I’m sure they consider him a traitor to their cause too. In every conflict, each side has its own truth. The more sides there are, the more truths there are, the harder the conflict is to resolve.

Mr McGuinness changed his mind regarding his own particular truth. But not everyone in Ireland accepts that unification is no longer on the cards. And the fact that, if put to a referendum, the motion of unification would be defeated in Northern Ireland due to demographic realities on the ground is not enough to change the hearts and turn the heads of those who are prepared to take up arms in the name of a cause – even a lost cause.

I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the heads of people who opt for violence in the defence of an idea. I don’t know how the brain gets to the conclusion that putting oneself in harm’s way and inflicting hurt on others is the way forward on a particular question.
But I know that for as long as these thoughts are being thought and for as long as we do not understand them, whatever solution we offer will leave some people dissatisfied. And if those people are the ones who are willing and able to take up arms to protest their dissatisfaction, then we have a problem that cannot be dismissed through sanitised language, describing murder as ‘terrorist outages’, destruction as ‘violent incidents’ and the, small-scale but undeniable, re-militarisation of northern Ireland’s youth as ‘statistically insignificant’.

And comparisons won’t help either.
Comparing Northern Ireland to the Basque country obfuscates the problem. The history and socio-economic background of the conflicts could not be more different. Same goes for their demands: ETA wants the Basque country to break away, most IRA offshoots want Ireland to unite. That’s a pretty big difference if you ask me.
Where the two resemble each other is in that the people living in the areas affected are far from unanimously behind the idea of independence or unity – and even those who share the vision and understand the sentiments are getting increasingly fed up with the violence.

But the thing about violence is that ignoring it never makes it go away.

The peace process should not be derailed by the violence, is the chorus coming out of both Stormont and Westminster.
And that is right.
But the peace process cannot afford to ignore the violence either.

Their goal may be utopian, their ranks may be depleted but the militants who don’t buy into the power-sharing experiment in Northern Ireland are still around and not sitting tight.

McGuinness can accuse them of betraying their people all he likes – chances are that’s exactly what they think of him as well.
And the problem is that they are ‘the people’ as much as McGuinness is. They are ‘the people’ as much as those embracing the peace process are.
And ‘the people’ remain divided. So the peace process remains shaky. And hard work is still needed. And a perfect peace is still a way away. And the ability to take peace for granted further still.

But the greatest enemy of a perfect peace, that can be taken for granted as ‘the way things are’, is not the violence right now. It’s the people who tell us that violence in Northern Ireland is inevitable. It’s the people who think the way things always were is the way things will always be.
It’s the people who cannot believe in a perfect peace even though they are working towards it.

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