With the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement recently celebrated, the debates over Brexit’s effect on the Irish border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the ongoing efforts to restore the power-sharing executive between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the issue of inter-communal relations in Northern Ireland has come back into the spot light.
Over the course of the Northern Ireland conflict, 3,532 people were killed, of which the majority were civilians (Kelly, 9th April 2018). Though the level of violence has been reduced substantially, there still remains in effect, an “acceptable level of violence” within Northern Ireland that has existed since 1998 with concurrent identity and language issues which threaten to undermine the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Conflict Overview
The 1921 partition of Ireland created the 26 counties of Ireland whilst the 6 counties of the north-eastern part of the island remained an autonomous part of the United Kingdom in which the Protestant community formed the majority whilst the Catholic community formed the minority (Cronin, 2009, p. 42). The Catholic community in Northern Ireland believed they were experiencing discrimination at the hands of the Protestant community in a number of areas such as housing, welfare, education and employment. This provided the context in which the Catholic Civil Rights movement emerged, resulting in political unrest and Protestant violence from which the nationalist organisations such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Protestant loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteers Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 80: Cronin, 2009, p. 43)
Secret peace talks to end the violence began in 1972 and with a first potential settlement outline in 1974. Between 1974 and 1994 there were seven attempts at resolving the Northern Ireland conflict through some form of power-sharing, but none were successful (Cronin, 2009, p. 43).
In a bid to break the deadlock, 1985 Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative government at the time, sought to circumvent the local opposition of both Catholic nationalist and Protestant loyalist groups by establishing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Republic of Ireland. This gave the Republic of Ireland the right of consultation in regard to the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland Policy in exchange for recognition of the State of Northern Ireland and its right to be ruled in accordance with the wishes of the majority of its population.This was followed by Sinn Fein, considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), ending its policy of abstention from peace talks in 1986 (Cronin, 2009, p. 44). Close cooperation between Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein), John Hume (Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Taoiseach Albert Reynold led to a Joint Statement on how to bring about an end to the violence which was followed by a Joint Declaration for Peace by the British and Irish governments in which British declared it had no “selfish strategic interests” in Northern Ireland (Cronin, 2009, p. 45). This was followed by a PIRA ceasefire from August 31st, 1994 to February 9th 1996, however despite a return to armed conflict, multi-party talks took place at Stormont in March 1996 without Sinn Fein due to continuing PIRA violence (Cronin, 2009, pp. 45-46).
On July 20th 1997, a second PIRA ceasefire was declared followed in the following year by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10th 1998 which was endorsed on April 22nd by popular referendums in both Northern Ireland by 71% and the Republic of Ireland by 94%. An attempt by the Real IRA (a PIRA splinter) in August 1998 in Omagh did nothing to undermine the peace process and resulting public backlash destroyed its ability to galvanise opposition to the agreement (Cronin, 2009, pp. 46, 108). In 1999, the Republic of Ireland, altered its historical and constitutional commitment to support of “irredentism” (the idea of reclaiming or redeeming land considered to be lost or occupied by another power) contained in Article 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution which had been established following the partition of Ireland (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 86). However, it would not be until 2005 that the PIRA announced an end to armed struggle and the thirty years of inter-communal violence which had claimed over 3,000 casualties could truly be confirmed to be over (Cronin, 2009, pp. 46-47, 108; Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 88).
Crucially to the 1998 Agreement on Northern Ireland was the explicit recognition by both the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland of the right of self-determination by the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic as well as the principle of consent. The latter stated that a united Ireland could only be brought about through separate referenda in which a majority was need from both sides of the border (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 143; Kelly, 9th April 2018). A previous attempt at a border poll on 1973 had been boycotted by the Nationalist and Republican communities (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 144).
The 1998 Agreement contained a number of vital institutions such as the North-South Ministerial Council between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish government and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 143). Northern Ireland required a broad range of institutions for a final agreement to be reached including autonomy through devolution, a power-sharing agreement and connected mechanisms which dealt with the inter-communal relations that been the key element of the conflict (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, p. 88). The Northern Ireland Assembly was to be every five years whilst the Executive could only be formed through participation of both the Catholic-nationalist and Protestant-loyalist communities (Kelly, 9th April 2018). Though at the time of the 1998 agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) were quickly overtaken as the main parties of both the communities by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (Kelly, 9th April 2018).
20 Years On
The Agreement on Northern Ireland was not perfect and required a subsequent revision in the St. Andrew Agreement of 2006 and yet even this revision didn’t solve all the problems particularly those related to culture (Cordell and Wolff, 2010, pp. 88-89; Kettle, 5th April 2018; Fontana, 16th April 2018).
Whilst we celebrate how far we (collectively the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) in terms of the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement, it is important that we recognise how far we still need to go. This isn’t just the about restoring the institutions we have but being acutely aware that enduring identity issues still remain.
Language, Identity and Sectarianism
One of the complexities of the conflict, which arguably still remains, is the manner in which political, religious and national identities have become intertwined. Irish nationalism came to be interlinked if not synonymous with Catholicism whilst Ulster Protestantism came to be interlinked with loyalty to the United Kingdom whereas historically it had been connected with Republicanism in Ireland (Crenshaw, 2011, p. 96).
These identities, crucially remain ever presence in Northern Ireland and continue to simmer below the surface. As Kettle argued regarding the 1998 Agreement, it “stopped the violence. But it did not stop the sectarianism…” (Kettle, 5th April 2018). Though there has been massively reduced inter-community violence, there has been continued low-level “acceptable level of violence” within Northern Ireland with 158 people between 1998 (127 killed since the Omagh bombing) (Nolan, 23rd April 2018). However, what is striking about the statistics cited by Nolan is that of those killed “only a few have been sectarian in the sense of people from one community killing a person from the other”, though there have been Catholics who had been targeted and killed because of their religious identity (Noland, 23rd April 2018).
Given that the political and communal stability of Northern Ireland alongside its security has been built on the power-sharing consensus between the Catholic-nationalist community and the Protestant-unionist community, the continuing absence of the Northern Ireland Executive since January 2017 following the “Cash for Ash” scandal, is a major concern (Fontana, 16th April 2018).
In my view this is because without a power-sharing executive in place, not only to govern the institutions and political systems of Northern Ireland but to encourage, facilitate inter-community relations, another form of local grass-roots leadership will fill the void such as the paramilitaries who could seek to draw support from their respective communities by relying around a contentious issue for example the Irish language act.
Language and Identity
Language and identity often go hand in hand and this is true in Northern Ireland. Though the initial collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive was caused by an unrelated issue, the inability for the power-sharing executive to be restored has been due to division between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the Irish Language Act. Equality between the Irish and English was established in the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement, however the issue has become more about the way in which this equality is enacted. (Fontana, 16th April 2018).
Austen Morgan QC argues that the demand for a standalone Irish Language Act, demanded by Sinn Fein could conflict with specific clauses of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement because it threatens the established parity regarding the linguistic diversity of Northern Ireland including English, Irish and Ulster-Scots. This was because in the context of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Irish language act was demanded as a separate act to a broader cultural act being put forward by the DUP in which Sinn Fein’s concern was for the rights of Irish speakers alone (MacDonald, 10th July 2017). Indeed, Sinn Fein has stated that only a “standalone” Irish Language Act that specifically excludes the other spoken languages in Northern Ireland is acceptable as concession to their agreement to restoring the power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland (MacDonald, 27th June 2018)
In my opinion, the division over the language act, if left unresolved or handled poorly, is likely to inflame tensions between the Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant loyalist communities. Though is has not become apparent yet, it could well be that the Catholic-Nationalist community begin unite around issue of Irish language and perceive it as the most recent issue in a long list of issues relating to their marginalisation (housing, welfare, education and employment) which provide the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to which the Protestant-loyalist paramilitaries responded to with violence.
Denying an Irish Language Act (or more specifically a standalone as demanded by Sinn Fein) could just provoke further political unrest. Though Republican/Nationalist paramilitaries have largely only been responsible for around targeting members of their own community since 1998 (Post-Omagh) (Nolan, 23rd April 2018), it is no unfeasible for them become more active against either or both the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) or the Protestant Loyalist community over the Irish language issue.
At the same time, any attempt to increase the position of the Catholic-Nationalist community (in terms of having their language given special treatment) is likely to provoke a backlash from the loyalist paramilitaries who have been active in reminding the nationalist community that they are still around and will respond to any attempt to alter their identity position. This killing of Ciaran Cummings on 4th July 2001, is a case in point; a Catholic boy of 19 years of age, Cummings was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in Antrim as a response to efforts at the time to alter the routes used by loyalist parades (Nolan, 23rd April 2018). It is within the realms of possibility that a far more substantial issue could provoke further violence to which the nationalist community and the remaining paramilitaries that operate within them would likely respond given that the sectarianism issue within Northern Ireland still remains (Kettle, 5th April 2018).
With Brexit looming and the issues of the porosity of the Irish border between north and south looming, the issues around language and identity are likely to become even more important and contentious. We have come a long way but there is still much to be done bring to bring the level of violence to and end rather than allowing an acceptable level of violence to remain before the division between the communities become so reduced that sectarianism becomes simply a historical term rather than a daily reality.
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Cordell, Karl and Wolff, Stefan (2010) Ethnic Conflict: Causes-Consequences-Responses (Polity Press: Cambridge).
Fontana, Guiditta, the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (16th April 2018), “20 Years since the Good Friday Agreement: What we can learn from Northern Ireland’s Peace Process” available at: https://blog.bham.ac.uk/socialsciencesbirmingham/2018/04/16/20-years-since-the-good-friday-agreement/ (Accessed on 24th April 2018).
Kelly, Ben, The Independent (9th April 2018), “Good Friday Agreement: What was the peace deal reached in Northern Ireland 20 years ago?” available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/good-friday-agreement-what-is-it-northern-ireland-belfast-1998-sinn-fein-the-troubles-a8278156.html (Accessed on 20th April 2018).
Kettle, Martin, The Guardian (5th April 2018), “The Good Friday Agreement is 20 – and Britain can’t afford to forget it” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/good-friday-agreement-20-britain-ireland-peace-process (Accessed on 20th April 2018).
MacDonald, Henry, The Guardian (10th July 2017), “Proposed Irish language act could breach Good Friday deal, lawyer says” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/10/proposed-irish-language-act-could-breach-good-friday-northern-ireland-deal-lawyer-says (Accessed on 20th 2018).
MacDonald, Henry, The Guardian (27th June 2017), “Irish Language Act hampering Northern Ireland power-sharing” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/27/irish-language-act-hampering-northern-ireland-power-sharing-talks (Accessed on 20th April 2018).
Nolan, Paul, The Detail (23rd April 2018), “The cruel peace, killing in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement”, available at: http://www.thedetail.tv/articles/the-cruel-peace-killings-in-northern-ireland-since-the-good-friday-agreement (Accessed 24th April 2018).
Article by David Wilcox
Photograph: Business Insider UK