the key to avoiding the abyss is to step around it
The recent events in Northern Ireland have brought back a whole host of dark memories. The attacks have placed a question mark over both the stability and success of the peace process. However, in many ways the attacks are very different from those during the Troubles. Unlike the violence in the past, these attacks are not really aimed at gaining public support or making a political point but at destabilising Northern Ireland in its transition from post-conflict zone to stable society.
The recent attacks on police officers and soldiers in Northern Ireland have brought back dark memories to most Irish people, North and South, of a time they would prefer to forget. Through the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the subsequent decommissioning process and the success of power-sharing in Stormont, the people of Northern Ireland have made every effort to put the ‘dark days’ of the Troubles behind them and leave the violence – which seemed endless in the 1970s and ‘80s – in the past. And they have become very good at it. Rebuilding a community which at one point was losing approximately 300 of its members every year to political violence has not been an easy process and is still quite some way from completion. But, for many, the Northern Ireland of today seems worlds away from the Northern Ireland of the Troubles.
Hardly surprising then that the recent spate of attacks, which both in manner and brutality are frighteningly reminiscent of past violence, have been so troubling and have raised some simple – but terrifying – questions: what did we miss? What have we, as peace-builders, failed to take into account? Are the Troubles back? And above all: why now? It is this last question which is so troubling to people in Britain and Ireland and is probably the reason why the attacks have come as such a shock to politicians and the public alike.
However, it is the ‘why now?’ element of the current situation which has the potential to avoid the deconstruction of a peace that has been so built with such care. For all their rhetoric and claims of representing Northern Irish people, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA seem distinctly out of place and out of touch with a contemporary Northern Ireland which is finally moving from ‘post-conflict society’ to stable community. Unlike the 1970s and ‘80s, there is relatively little malcontent in need of expression or division ripe for exploitation. The evidence of this is in the reaction to the recent killings. Rather than proclaiming tokenistic opposition to violence or refusing to comment on the issue, people from all sides of Northern Irish society have been both forceful and vocal in their condemnation of the attacks. If the CIRA or RIRA have a potential support base they are aiming to tap into, it is a very well hidden one.
Equally hidden are the attackers’ aims. Other than a rather generic call for the independence of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, the C/RIRA’s actions are seemingly random and do not belie a specific strategy. Additionally, Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of the process of devolution. Stormont now has the same administrative and legal clout as the Scottish Executive and it is not entirely unreasonable to expect more powers. In light of this, calls for freedom seem, at the very least, rather belated.
Looking at the actions of the C/RIRA in this way it appears their aim isn’t to unite a disenfranchised people or force the British government to give Stormont control of Northern Ireland. Rather their aim is to disrupt Northern Irish society and to resurrect old demons. If anything their actions are anarchic – unexpected acts which strive to undermine and unsettle. And like anarchists they should not be treated as part of a wider, representative, social movement in the way previous political radicals in Northern Ireland have been but as individuals who want to cause trouble.
If the present situation in Northern Ireland tells us anything, it is that violence is unwanted and out of place. Something which at one stage may have been sadly accepted as part of life has now been rejected wholesale by both the public and their political representatives. The people of Northern Ireland do not want to stand, as Dolores Kelly of the SDLP in Craigavon stated, staring into the abyss and the perpetrators of these attacks must know this. The test will be whether Northern Ireland continues along its path to a stable, peaceful society, undeterred by these random acts, or whether we stop and keep staring.