Northern Ireland news

Faulty politics of peace process should be monitored, as well as violence

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (right) and Stormont minister Danny Kennedy announce the party's plans to withdraw from the Executive and form an opposition
By Steven McCaffery

IT’S almost 20 years since US President Bill Clinton addressed crowds in Derry on a freezing November night in 1995.

The search for a lasting peace was in its infancy, the political atmosphere was toxic, and it fell to the president to inspire confidence.

Clinton famously captured the moment, quoting from Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, to deliver the poetic prediction that sometimes "hope and history rhyme".

But that quote, much like the early optimism of the peace process, has now been sucked dry to resemble what Michael McDowell might call a "withering husk".

Over the last two decades the peace process has delivered huge achievements, but it has also lurched from crisis to crisis, and now it's back there again.

Members of the supposedly defunct IRA are implicated in a killing carried out in revenge for the murder of one of their paramilitary comrades. The grief of two bereaved families has quickly been overshadowed by the unfolding political crisis, recriminations, and party politicking.

It all feels tragically familiar - the peace process in jeopardy again over republican violence. But other evidence shows that the crisis actually runs much deeper.

One of the most striking features of post-Troubles Northern Ireland is the number of issues that echo political life prior to the conflict erupting in 1969.

The communities that were poor then, remain the poorest today. The regions with the weakest infrastructure continue to lag behind. Minority communities are again being denied rights and sectarianism runs deep.

There have been long delays at Stormont in introducing legislation to protect ethnic minorities and the gay community, or to reflect the diversity of a population that has undergone massive demographic changes.

Twenty years into the peace process it is remarkable that there is still no official outward recognition for the Irish identity, with unionists blocking an Irish language act at Stormont, while the parliament building itself is virtually devoid of any Irish symbolism.

There has also been a failure to defuse tensions over parades and, as yet, little success in dealing with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

Meanwhile, the communities that report feeling most isolated from Stormont include the sections of loyalism that were so important to launching the peace process.

Oddly, the DUP and Sinn Féin have often avoided publicly blaming each other for various policy failures. Their reliance on horse-trading between each other leaves them clinging to the grim hope of getting decisions agreed at some stage.

Over time the DUP became focused on its electoral position in Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin became focused on its fortunes in the Dáil. And so in Stormont, straightforward government projects became bogged-down.

This included an £80 million poverty fund, frozen for years by what insiders claimed was a row over whether more of the money should go to poor Catholics or poor Protestants.

Official figures show higher levels of need within the Catholic community, but unionists and republicans have previously disagreed on how to tackle poverty in a divided society.

The High Court in Belfast recently ruled that Stormont had failed to introduce an anti-poverty strategy for Northern Ireland based on objective need.

Outside politics, figures revealed that from 2012-15 there were nearly 1,300 incidents of paramilitaries forcing people from their homes in the north.

It was another example of a reality of life that would not be tolerated in Britain or in the Republic.

London and Dublin are seen to have looked the other way. The benign view is that they were busy fighting economic crises, but critics claim party politics is at play.

The latest allegations of violent activity by IRA members have sparked calls for the governments to revive the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) that reported on paramilitary groups from 2004-2011.

With two men dead as a result of republican clashes, with an average of 400 people a year made homeless by paramilitaries, and with mainstream unionists accused of making common cause with loyalist representatives over the issue of parades, there is widespread agreement that paramilitarism has to be tackled.

A new government-sponsored review of paramilitary activity could 'name and shame' anyone offering political support to illegality. But should any new plan to save the peace process have a further remit?

Should there also be a place for 'naming and shaming' parties found to be blocking political progress at Stormont, or blocking the implementation of political deals such as the Stormont House Agreement?

The peace process was built on two aims: to end violence and to show that politics can work.

Surely any solution to the current crisis that only tackles half of that equation will fail?

Steven McCaffery is editor of the news and analysis website, The Detail.

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