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Northern Ireland at a Crossroads?

The Atlantic Review is pleased to present this guest article by Professor Stefan Wolff from the Centre for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution, University of Nottingham, UK.

For more than a decade, Northern Ireland had been spared from fatal attacks on security forces. Then, within two days, two soldiers and a policeman had been killed by terrorists. Why did it happen, and what does it mean for the future of Northern Ireland?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. The 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, while endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Republicans, was never without its opponents in this community. Nor was the very strategy of achieving a united Ireland by peaceful means. As early as 1986, some of those opposed to Sinn Féin's engagement in the political process split from the Provisional IRA and formed the so-called Continuity IRA-the group that killed Constable Stephen Carroll of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on March 9, 2009. The killing of two soldiers just 48 hours earlier had been committed by a group calling itself the Real IRA who had split from the Provisional IRA in 1997 in opposition to Sinn Fein's entering of the negotiations process that would eventually produce the 1998 Agreement.

These two and other splinter groups had been considered a security threat for some time, and had, over the years since 1998, tried to derail Northern Ireland's peace and political processes, including the Omagh bombing of August 1998 that killed 29 innocent civilians. Led by hard-line Republican ideologues, knowledgeable in terror tactics and with access to at least some weaponry and equipment, these groups now benefit from a larger reservoir of young angry, frustrated and alienated young men living in deprived areas hit hard by the current recession and not benefitting from any kind of peace dividend that was meant to come with conflict resolution. Crucially, a decade after the conclusion of the 1998 Agreement these groups bring together those nostalgic of the 'military struggle' and those who have no living memory of the human suffering that 'the Troubles' brought to Northern Ireland.

The threat is a serious one, but it would be wrong to overestimate it. For one, Republican splinter groups are very small, estimated at no more than 300 activists at best, spread thinly across a range of groups from the Real and Continuity IRA, to the Irish National Liberation Army (or INLA, which emerged as early as 1975) and to a relatively new group called the Irish Republican Liberation Army, which is widely seen as an organised criminal group rather than as one with a political goal. Moreover, what distinguishes the environment in which these splinter groups operate today from the height of 'the Troubles' in the 1970s and 1980s is that they, in contrast to the Provisional IRA then, have virtually no community support. This point is particularly obvious considering that the Deputy Leader of Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness (a self-confessed former member of the Provisional IRA) condemned the killings in no uncertain terms and urged his supporters to cooperate with the police in apprehending those responsible. This level of Republican cooperation with the security forces would have been completely unthinkable even 12 months or so ago. Perhaps, most importantly, political parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland have stood united in their condemnation of the attacks rather than engaging in mutual recriminations.

This is not to suggest that there is not potentially more violence under way. While it remains unclear whether the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA 'synchronised' their attacks or whether they are, in fact, trying to out-do each other in proving their prowess to their tiny number of supporters, the security forces have been swift and fairly effective so far in their response-yet, it is unlikely that they will be able to destroy the organisations completely in the short-term. Another potential source of threat, especially if dissident Republicans manage more attacks in the near future, would be Loyalist retaliation. In the past, Republicans and Loyalists often engaged in tit-for-tat killings, affecting mostly innocent civilians. So far, Loyalists have not 'retaliated'. This reflects their weakness and deep involvement in organised crime, rather than a politically motivated struggle. Nonetheless, Loyalists have retained some capabilities that enable them to carry out their own attacks. The third threat are riots (spontaneous or organised) in either community. So far, people from both communities have united in their condemnation of the murders, but this is not to say that Loyalists might not in the future lash out violently in response to more attacks, even if their paramilitaries remain passive, or that Republicans could not respond in a similar way to police raids.

These scenarios may seem possible, but they are not very probable-at least not in the sense that there is a serious danger to the stability of the political or peace process in Northern Ireland. Politicians and ordinary people have sent a very clear message to the terrorists: there is none but the most marginal support for a return to the dark days of violence in Northern Ireland. If anything, thus, the killings have proved counter-productive by reminding everyone of how much progress the region has made over the past decade. It also has reminded many people of those dark days of sectarian violence and strengthened their resolve not to return to that era. From that perspective, Northern Ireland is not at a crossroads today. People and politicians from both communities reject the choice that a small number of dissident Republicans are trying to force on them. Yet, while there may not be a crossroads ahead, the bump in the road that these killings represent needs to be taken serious. The way in which Northern Ireland has responded so far suggests that this has been understood. Northern Ireland truly has moved into a new era of peace and stability that the overwhelming majority of its people in both communities are not prepared to see spoilt by unredeemable men of violence.

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John in Michigan, USA on :

Professor Wolff, Thank you for your analysis, I very much hope that you are correct. I too am very much encouraged by the unified condemnation and lack of reprisal (so far). However, in this age of shadowy splinter groups (is Al-Qaeda in Iraq part of Al-Qaeda, etc.), one has to ask uncomfortable questions. All the reports I've read blame the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA for these acts. And that would be my best guess as well. But the question remains -- how good is the evidence? We can be reasonably sure these groups exist, but how do we know that the group calling itself "X" in 2009 is the same group that called itself "X" in 1989? How do we know they are responsible for these specific, recent incidents? If you had to choose, would you say the evidence on these points is a) circumstantial, b) strongly circumstantial, or c) direct? By direct I mean: wiretaps, witnesses, confessions, or forensic evidence. By confessions I mean more than just some person or group claiming credit, I mean confessions that have a high probative value, for example, that include information that only the perpetrator(s) could know. By forensic evidence I mean more than just "well the equipment or devices used are consistent with earlier incidents and earlier groups". Is there reading material you can recommend (preferably online) that addresses these questions? Thank you.

John in Michigan, USA on :

I should add that I didn't mean to suggest a comparison between Al-Qaeda and the IRA, nor any other comparison. I was trying to illustrate the slippery concept of "identity" when applied to informal, covert groups. Commenters, feel free to suggest a better analogy than mine!

Marie Claude on :

I read somewhere that there are some palestinian interferences

Pat Patterson on :

That "...forced agreement..." was approved in the spring of 1998 by a referndum held in both Eire and Northern Ireland. It was approved by 76% of the voters in the North and 94% of the voters in the Republic of Ireland. At the high point there were some 27,000 British troops in Northern Ireland but currently there are only a couple of thousand. That's not a very big occupying army. Part of the referendum endorsing the Belfast Agreement was that the Irish changed their constitution to recognize Northern Ireland and renounce claims to the area. In fact one of the great fear of the Unionists was that the Blair government was going to abandon them rather then force them to remain a separate enclave.

Pat Patterson on :

There was a national referendum in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to ratify the Belfast or more popularly known Good Friday Agreement in May of 1998. This is simply a matter of public record and why not check there before bleating nonsense here? We have gone over this before and you seem to know as little about the Falklands and Northern Ireland than the last time. Find some facts to back your position that the citizens and subjects of those two countries and the territory that support the idea that there were not votes held. And again all the OAS asked was that negotiations continue but Argentina wants a condition that the agreement arrived at will eventually cede authority to them and the UK and the subjects living in the Falklands will never agree to those preconditions.

Pat Patterson on :

Again utter nonsense. Perhaps you should simply read the Belfast Agreement or the British Nationality Act of 1983. The former clearly states in the Constitutional Issues, sections i, ii and vi that the people of Northern Ireland have the right, as approved by the subsequent vote, to join Ireland or stay in the UK while the last section says that they have the right to claim either Irish or British birthright. BTW, Britain does not use the word citizens but rather refers to its people as subjects. Even though for all intents and purposes they have the same rights as citizens in most republics. Republics not to be confused with people's republics which by definition can't exist. The British Nationality Act of 1983 determined, after a refendum was approved by the residents of the Falklands, that they are indeed British subjects. Plus the link makes absolutely no sense at all especially as it is a travel site. You will have to do better than that. And if Argentina continues to press its claim it might do well to remember that it expelled British and Spanish residents after Independence, which was never recognized by the Spanish. Since Spain never surrendered its title then they have first claim. And since Argentina has denied the legality of the referendum held by the now subjects of the UK resident in the Falklands then demanding transfer is simply not going to happen. Especially now that the Argentinians have found that oil leases they were negotiating with Britain are now not likely to ever occur.

Pat Patterson on :

Forgot to add that since the UK is not a member of the OAS then what difference to the British are any of that organizations resolutions? They are not binding on even the Argentinians but Pres Kirchner after making the Argentinian economy even worse than her husband had managed when he was president did might just need a distraction. But then that didn't work to well for General Galtieri and she may come to regret the saber rattling.

Pat Patterson on :

You can comment on this thread eighteen times and then claim you don't have time to do your own research? That is the weirdest excuse for sloth and ignorance I have heard yet.

Pat Patterson on :

I can't believe how lazy you are. The Belfast Agreement, follow the internal links; http://www.nio.gov.uk/index/key-issues/the-agreement.htm The British Nationality Act, a brief description of the act and its granting of full rights to the residents of the Falklands; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Nationality_(Falkland_Islands)_Act_1983 While the initial adoption by first popular vote and then the Legislative Council led to the approval and implemention of the Falkland Islands Constitution of 1985. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2007/rp07-029.pdf

Pat Patterson on :

The Republic of Ireland is predominately Roman Catholic while Northern Island is majority Protestant. The current attacks are not popular with the Catholic community as the PIRA, they were chased out of the Irish Free State during the Civil War by the IRA, is currently in the government. While splinter groups have never accepted the Belfast Agreement they are in a decided minority.

Pat Patterson on :

And you should be ashamed of yourself for that posting because the original source, Reuters via the Boston Globe, was referring to rioting in Tibet. Either you or someone else has simply inserted phrases and words to change the locale to Ulster rather than as originally written referring to Tibet. Not Bertie but Lhadon Tethong. http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2009/03/23/riot_shows_desperate_tibetans_may_defy_security/

Pat Patterson on :

A fabrication is a fabrication. If the article is not an accurate description of one place then how can it still be claimed to be accurate about some place else. You still should be ashamed more so in admitting that you changed the article and yet still put it in quotes to assert its legitimacy and accuracy. Both of the posts, 5:56 and 6:13, are rewrites of the article I provided the link address too. Some translation errors do not include substituting Northern Ireland for Tibet or changing the names of those quoted. Why not stop now before what little credibility you have is completely frittered away as a plagarist and liar.

Pat Patterson on :

Is your new friend a 6'3" tall white rabbit called Harvey? Why not just sign your comments Elwood P Dodd?

Pat Patterson on :

Jeez, apologies to Joerg, but this is like being insulted by a guy drooling all over his straitjacket.

Pat Patterson on :

Why not simply type in Elwood P Dodd in a search engine and find out yourself?

Joe Noory on :

First of all YL, Pat and I don't insult one another. You are simply inventing interpersonal matters and don't even seem to try to understand what people have to say. Second of all, I am an individual, not "the representative of the Arab world." If you knew anything at all, you might realize that one person doesn't represent a whole broad sector of the world's population, even if they are the only arab you ever meant, and most of all there is enough difference between arabic-speaking cultures that it's nearly impossible to say that there is any use to thinking there is an Arab world. And no, I ill not dress up like a bedouin to focus your already-oversimplified view of the world. I withdrew from reading this blog daily because of your arbitrary childishness, emotionalism, and evasive comments unrelated to the articles (and Marie-Claude doing the same as well) over the articles which are pretty predictable and uninspired to begin with.

Pat Patterson on :

This is pathetic but fun to watch. Something like a Chinese version of The Transformers, where the guilty party again takes an article about Tibet, manipulates it by changing the place names and the people involved to make some fictional character talk about Northern Ireland. Again another article from Reuters, datelined Lhasa by Emma Graham-Harrison, that YL has plagarized and bowdlerized to make some weird political point. http://www.reuters.com/article/newsMaps/idUSTRE5210J620090302

Pat Patterson on :

The Land of Snows is the title given to Tibet in the West. And considering the highest peak in Ulster is 2,785 ft describing it as snow covered must be satire.

Pat Patterson on :

FYI, no Nagano on the faculty at the University of British Columbia either in History or any other department. No Modern North Ireland Studies Program either. https://www.directory.ubc.ca/index.cfm?page=whitepagestaff&whitePage=W432

Pat Patterson on :

It's called lying and then getting caught. No University of Golumbia, no Nagano at UBC and obviously none at the phantom university. No metaphor for a simple typo when stealing someone else's work. There were no riots in Belfast on the 9th but rather the 17th on St Patrick's Day. While March 9th is significant in Tibet because there were country wide demonstrations and riots last year on that date on the anniversary of an armed revolt against the Chinese occupation. The Chinese flooded Tibet with police, paramilitaries and the PLA in fear that the Tibetans might have even bigger demonstrations on the 50th anniversary of their attempt to be come independent again.

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