10th April 1998, the date of the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, was a good day. It was a day of peace and a day of conclusion, which many saw as the final cessation of more than 3 decades of civil war, dead totalling 3,500 in Northern Ireland. In the years since 1998 very little has been mentioned in the press about this small corner of the much diminished British Empire. Newspapers that were once rife with accounts of IRA brutality and Loyalist’s mocking marches are now concerned with the global financial crisis and Islamic extremism. Yet more than 12 years after the signing of this famous peace agreement, Ulster’s battle has not finished, even if the commentators have stopped watching.
Irish dissident violence is on the rise again. So far this year there have been over 20 bombs planted, of which more than half have exploded, the rest having been disabled by the security services. On the 14th of August the police failed to find a pipe bomb hidden inside a bin in a residential area and 3 children were injured. 2 weeks before that an 8 year old boy brought a live pipe bomb into his school after finding it in the playground.
2009 saw the assassination of 2 British army soldiers, the first military deaths in Northern Ireland since 1997 as well as the murder of a police officer, Stephen Carroll, the first police death since 2001. Other murder attempts lives of police officers and their families have been made recently along with 30 attacks on police stations and 9 confirmed shootings.
The dissident groups, thought to be from three separate organisations, the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs, number less than 100 members in total and appear to be working together coordinating attacks. The Real IRA has also threatened bankers on the mainland due to their links to ‘Britain’s colonial and capitalist system’. During their original mainland bombing campaign during the ’70’s, which included the Guildford and Birmingham bombings, more than 100 people were killed, half military, half civilian. Experts claim these groups do not have the infrastructure or membership to motion attacks so far away, but all the groups have claimed a substantial spike in membership. They also clearly have access to the materials and knowledge required to make explosive devices.
These developments were sufficient to lead Australia to raise its threat level for Northern Ireland this summer, citing chances of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland ‘highly likely’ with Irish derived terrorism in Great Britain seen as a ‘strong possibility’.
What are the causes for these increases in violence? The rise may be linked to increased transparency in British-Irish affairs during the Troubles. The Saville report was published this July, 12 years after it began. The report concerns the events of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre which saw the murder of 13 unarmed civilians, 6 of them just 17 years old, in Derry during a civil rights march. They were shot by members of the 1st battalion parachute regiment, British Army. All were running away from the soldiers, some already wounded, were shot while dragging themselves to safety. Although the Saville Report placed the blame for starting the massacre solely on the soldiers and exculpated all of the victims, none of the soldiers will be prosecuted as a result of the enquiry. Despite a gracious apology by David Cameron, only one Unionist politician has acknowledged the findings of the report – others have criticised it and publicly worried about the creation of a ‘hierarchy of victims’. This has led to a surge of anger in nationalist communities and may explain why the marching season in Northern Ireland saw increased violence this year. Divisions in Ulster continue and the creation of parallel but opposing histories seems set to continue.
While the more famous cases of British heavy handedness in Northern Ireland have been investigated, many have not. The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) have heard from over 200 people regarding miscarriages of justice including torture within Northern Ireland’s non-jury courts and infamous prisons. A further 7 are waiting to be heard and 80 or more are being considered by the CCRC. The Royal Ulster Constabulary have been accused of using forms of torture such as water boarding, cigarette burns, threats of murder and being forced to assume stress positions. Many of those arrested and allegedly tortured were minors, who were persuaded to sign false confessions for crimes, some of which were later found to be either false, or impossible for the defendant to commit. Most tragic was the case of Hugh Hanna, arrested by mistake after another boy was tortured into a confession. Hanna also confessed under duress and both boys spent 9 years in prison. 30 years later both sentences were overturned. A few hours before the appeal began, Hugh Hanna hanged himself.
There are the kinds of issues we should be turning our eyes to. Peace in Northern Ireland seems so close, but can never happen unless some form of restitution is made the victims and their families. It is essential that these people are taken seriously and not brushed under the rug as remnants of a conflict that no longer holds any interest. Support for dissidents is already growing. In a recent survey 1 in 7 nationalists sympathise with the dissident’s recent behaviour. It is time the British government, and by extension the British people take responsibility for actions in Northern Ireland. Whether for, or against, a united Ireland we must make sure that the issues of this conflict are fully dealt with so that it can be properly ended. That we learn from the mistakes and ensure they are never repeated.
It is not only media coverage and transparency but also finance that is needed in Northern Ireland. The area was and remains one of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom. Male unemployment is currently at 9.3%, up 3.5% in 5 years. 38% of the unemployment is long term and 52% of the unemployed are aged 16-29, a perfect age for a disaffected youth to be recruited by an organisation professing to make life better for all. Furthermore, in terms of unemployment, things can only get worse. 30.8% of Northern Irish jobs are in the public sector, compared to the British average of 19.5%. When the inevitable cuts of this government hit, it is clear that Ulster will suffer.
Even with complete restitution Northern Ireland remains a powder keg of violence. A whole generation were brought up surrounded by violence and the effects of this cannot be taken lightly. There are real grievances to addressed, traumas to be healed and social divisions which can only be resolved with support and investment to allow social and economic health to be restored.