Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Same As It Ever Was?

This was supposed to be over, right?

After the Good Friday Agreement, this was all to be part of the past, wasn't it?

With devolved government and a power sharing executive, the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland were supposed to put violence beyond their plans, weren't they?

Well, for the most part, it seems that they have.

The Real IRA's killing of two British soldiers in Antrim this weekend and the killing of a police officer in Craigavon (near Belfast) yesterday could not but send a shiver down the spine of those who have followed Northern Ireland's fitful path to peace and reconciliation.

The RIRA is a core of "true believers," made up mostly of former members of the Provos who reject the peace process and the perceived collusion of Republican leaders with the British government. Why did they do what they did? For the same reason that terrorists do anything: to bring attention to their beliefs by the use of politically-motivated violence.

What else might have provoked this violence? It could have been PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde's decision to bring in British Army intelligence specialists to deal with a growing threat of Republican activity and violence. It seems, after the events of the past few days, that he might have been on to something.

Will these attacks derail the peace process? I sincerely hope not. That will all depend on how the leaders of the Unionist and Nationalist communities react to the situation and how dedicated they remain to making the peace process work.

It seems that this is what is being done...sort of. For the part of the Unionists, DUP Leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has called for this matter to be left with the police and also for restraint on the part of Unionists to prevent recriminations and counter-violence in the wake of these attacks. British Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward has condemned the attacks and called for the people of the province to be united.

For the part of the Nationalists, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams condemned the loss of life, but intimated that if Sir Hugh Orde had not called in British Army specialists, these attacks might not have taken place.

Why the hair-splitting on the part of Adams and Sinn Fein? I agree with Lord Paul Bew's assessment that Adams is facing a difficult position for himself and his party (click on the link and read the whole thing; Bew is a real expert and has an excellent read on the situation).

Reeling from an unexpected electoral defeat in 2007, the lack of support from the Republic of Ireland (they have their own problems) and the seeming waning of political engagement of some former Republican supporters, Adams is in a political conundrum and he, in reacting, tried to speak out of both side of his mouth. He wanted to show that he supports the police and the justice system to pursue the perpetrators of this violence, but also that he still has the fight to question the actions of the British government in Northern Ireland.

This is all well and good as far as the political leaders go. The real meaning of these events going forward, though, rests with the people of Northern Ireland. It seems that the people of Northern Ireland are, by and large, committed to the peace process and the devolved government as it has developed over the past eleven years. There are, and will in some measure always be, radical elements on both sides of the issue.

The key question is how much support, either direct or tacit, is offered to these elements. If it it is a lot of support, then the killings of this weekend will not be the last. Organizations like the RIRA need the support of people in the community to survive as much as they need the channels of international money and arms smuggling to continue their "military" campaign. The same, naturally, goes for their Unionist counterparts.

The people of Northern Ireland must show that they have the political will to resist the actions of those who would bring back the violence and uncertainty of the Troubles of the past forty years. They also must realize that their leaders, people like Adams, might need to change. I believe that it will take a generational shift in political leadership for real, lasting progress to take root.

The generation that fought the British government and those that were in control of that government need to go by the wayside. The generation that grew up with the beginnings of the peace process in the 1980's, who has known as many years of peace as of violence, is where the hope for the future should lie.

It is these people who will have the will and the ability to support the peace process and its institutions. It is these people who will have to resist the temptation to let frustration lead back to the violence of the past. It is these people that will forge ahead and either make or break Northern Ireland as we now know it.

Is this likely to happen? As a life-long student of Irish history, I surely hope so. I am not naive enough, though, to guarantee any such thing.

We, and the people of Northern Ireland, must hold our breath and wait.

Let's hope it is worth it.

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