The Troubles in Northern Ireland: 2012

Undereported: Troubles in Northern Ireland
The Leonard Lopate Show and iTunes
Thursday 23 August 2012

Roughly 14 years have passed since the signing of the Good Friday peace accord, which ended decades of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. But that doesn’t mean the area is free of conflict, tensions and even violence. Jamie Smyth of the Financial Times talks about the situation. His recent article is called “A Peace to Protect.”


Leonard Lopate (LL) interviews Jamie Smyth (JS) about his article, A Peace to Protect, which appears in today’s The Financial Times.

Leonard Lopate (LL): Roughly fourteen years have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Peace accord that ended decades of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. But that doesn’t mean the area has remained free of conflict, tensions and even violence. We’re joined now by Jamie Smyth of The Financial Times whose article about the situation is called A Peace to Protect. We have a link to it on our show page

Jamie, welcome to today’s Undereported segment.

Jamie Smyth (JS): Good afternoon.

LL: How long did the conflict over in Northern Ireland go on before the 1998 peace accords?

JS: It was a thirty year period of violence called The Troubles in Northern Ireland which began in the late 1960’s. It sparked out of civil right movements where the situation in Northern Ireland was that the Catholic minority population were excluded from the avenues of power, they suffered jobs discrimination and discrimination in housing. And the civil rights movements started at the end of the 1960’s and it led to clashes with the Protestant dominated government there. And we had the formation of the Irish Republican Army at that stage and three decades of conflict continued from there.

LL: Now the accords were signed in 1998. Is the peace process still technically in place?

JS: Certainly. The peace process is in place and Northern Ireland is a much changed place since that peace agreement was signed. That really brokered an historic compromise between the majority Protestant community and the minority Catholic community. And it ushered in a period of self-government.

So what we’ve seen is that we’ve had fifteen years of relative calm and peace and that has created alot of inward investment into Northern Ireland. So you have had alot of jobs created, the cities are very much changed places… it’s almost a normal life that’s been created there which wasn’t possible during The Troubles.

But over the last three or four years what we’ve begun to see is a slight uptick in violence perpetrated by Republican dissident groups. These are groups that have split off from the former IRA and they’re pursuing a policy of trying to get a united Ireland through violence. We’ve seen several murders and then earlier this year we had a huge bomb which was diffused outside the border town of Newry. This bomb was bigger than the Omagh bomb which was the single biggest act of terrorism during The Troubles in 1998 which killed twenty-nine people.

So there’s alot of concern that this increase in dissident activity could usher in a new era of violence in Northern Ireland.

I think the concern is increased because we’ve also got an economic crisis at the minute in Ireland, and the UK and Northern Ireland.

So we’re seeing a very difficult economic situation, an increase in unemployment and the potential for dissident groups to try and lure young people onto the path of violence again.

LL: So economic problems have led to religious based tensions? Or renewed religious-based tensions? I mean is this still a Catholic-Protestant conflict? Or are we seeing something else developing?

JS: What we’ve seen is that despite fifteen years of peace the two communities still live in very different communities and sectarianism remains a very strong part of life in Northern Ireland especially in working class communities.

So there are large working class estates where you wouldn’t have different communities living together. The Catholic and Protestant communities live on these estates separated out from themselves and there still is alot of conflict and division there. I think the danger is that in some of these most marginalised estate, especially in the Republican areas which are the Catholic areas, you are beginning to see a certain breakdown and disenchantment with the peace process and with the Sinn Féin party which is now part of the government in Northern Ireland and which was previously linked to the IRA.

So there’s a fight going on for the hearts and minds of working class young people in some of these estates and you’re seeing a growing disenchantment with the peace process and Sinn Féin and the peace process as the economy worsens.

LL: Well, the economy has worsened both in Ireland and in the UK. Are these people feeling a kind of a pinch from both sides?

JS: I think what the people are feeling in these working class communities….you know for the article that I wrote I traveled to several different estates in Belfast and up in (London) Doire. And what you see are communities where the peace dividend and investment actually never really reached them. So these are communities of people where you’ve got six out of ten people are economically inactive. There are very little jobs…so for example the week in July when I traveled up to these areas there was a piece in the paper about how there were two thousand three hundred applications for fourteen jobs at a furniture store.

So the situation is compounded by the fact that there aren’t that many jobs. And also there’s a certain frustration with Sinn Féin, which is now in government, and which previously would have run these Republican areas and been very, very strong there.

Because it’s entered government now and it supports the police, the police are in these areas alot and the community has alot of difficulties with them. And also they see that Sinn Féin has, to a certain extent, given its own supporters a lot of the jobs, a lot of the funding.

So there’s a real frustration that Sinn Féin has sold out and a united Ireland has not been brought about.

But it would be wrong to over-exaggerate this. This is particularly in the marginalised working class communities; places like Doire, Lurgan, some parts of Belfast where this sort of fight on the ground for the hearts and minds of the working class communities is going on.

LL: Isn’t the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland much lower now than it was in 1982 when it was at twenty percent? I thought that the peace agreements helped the economy? Companies started going in there…there was alot more investment.

Has that all died down? Is that partly because of England’s problems today and the fact that Ireland has a pretty sick economy right now? (Ireland…it’s neighbour).

JS: Really what you saw after the 1998 peace agreement was a real decade of rapid growth in the economy.

Unemployment fell very strongly. And alot of people got jobs in the construction industry because you had a huge property boom all across the island of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

What we’ve had since is a major property bust in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Just for an example, house prices have collapsed by more than fifty percent in these communities and hundreds and thousands of construction workers have lost their jobs.

And of course it’s the working class communities where alot of people had gotten jobs in the construction industry and they are now not available. So you’ve got alot of young people with very little to do and they’re vulnerable to being recruited by dissidents.

But also I think it’s not just an economic issue it’s an ideological issue.

What’s happened is that as Sinn Féin has gone into government and supported the police in Northern Ireland you’ve had people becoming disenchanted with the fact that they’re becoming an establishment party in Northern Ireland whereas they used to be a party of revolution.

So for people that haven’t really benefited in the peace dividend and the boom they are getting increasingly disenfranchised with that and that’s where you’re seeing these armed groups beginning to recruit some young people.

LL: Are there Protestant militant groups as well?

JS: Yeah. There sure are. The UDA and UVF are still around in Northern Ireland. And just last Summer you saw huge riots out in East Belfast which were instigated by Ulster Volunteer Force which are one of the main paramilitary groups.

They’re still taking part in punishment beatings of young people who step out of line in their communities. And they’re still involved in crime, extortion, rackets.

I think on both sides of the community these paramilitary groups are anxious to keep control of the working class areas because it brings in a regular income. And it also gives them status within their own community. And that’s one of the big problems here that since the peace agreement some of the paramilitaries that lost their sort of goal in life and they see clinging on to these sort of dissident groups as a way to maintain power and lifestyle.

LL: The Detail, which is an online investigative wing of a Belfast TV station, did an analysis of government data and found that sixty thousand members of the public in Northern Ireland legally own over a hundred and forty-six thousand firearms. I’m assuming there are alot of illegal weapons out there as well which could lead to a seriously inflammatory situation. We have just moments left but has David Cameron’s approach to Northern Ireland been different than his predecessor’s?

JS: Well certainly on the ground in Northern Ireland you get alot of frustration from community workers who feel that the British and the Irish governments have taken their eye off the ball. David Cameron has been criticised for not meeting the leaders of the Northern Irish executive. In fact, meeting them less than those leaders have met Barack Obama since he was elected. So there’s been a very much been a hands-off approach by both government as they struggle with their own economic problems. And there’s a hope that they’ll be more re-engagement there. And also you would see that the issue certainly has gone down from America which was a huge supporter of the peace process.

LL: Jamie Smyth’s article A Peace to Protect in The Financial Times. You can find it on our show page; we have a link to it there. My great thanks to you for talking about The Troubles in Northern Ireland on today’s back story segment. It’s been a pleasure, I guess…(quips) that’s kind of scary and sad…..

JS: (laughs) Thank you.

(Interview ends 12:36 minutes)

Northern Ireland: A peace to protect
By Jamie Smyth
Financial Times
August 14, 2012

A worsening economy could increase the allure of paramilitaries

Andrew Allen was playing computer games with his nephew in February when gunmen shot him through the living room window, leaving the father-of-two dying in a pool of blood.

The 24-year-old is the latest person from Northern Ireland to be killed by so-called dissident Republicans opposed to the Good Friday peace accord agreed in 1998.

That agreement had made Northern Ireland a self-governing part of the UK and brokered a historic compromise between the Protestant majority, which favours retaining the link to Britain, and Catholics, who traditionally favour a united Ireland. The deal sparked widespread optimism that one of Europe’s most intractable conflicts – three decades known euphemistically as “the troubles” – was finally at an end. But violence still simmers and community leaders fear Northern Ireland could slide back if a weakening economy helps paramilitaries win recruits.

“When the peace was agreed, I said to myself: ‘Thank God my boys are not growing up in the middle of all that violence.’ But then they murdered Andrew and tore my family apart,” says Donna Smith, Mr Allen’s mother, speaking in her living room in the city of Londonderry, known to Catholics as Derry. A photograph of her son hangs prominently on the wall.

Mr Allen was targeted by a vigilante group called Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), composed of former members of the Irish Republican Army – the guerrilla group that fought British forces during the troubles and later disarmed during the peace process. While the level of violence is still well below the ferocity seen during the worst periods of the conflict, and has even improved since 2002, many people warn that politicians now need to refocus on Northern Ireland’s festering divisions.

Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-Operation Ireland, a charity that works with young people in working-class communities, says the economic downturn provides a fertile recruiting ground for paramilitary gangs. The crisis is also diverting the UK and Irish governments from the peace process at a particularly dangerous time, he says.

“My fear is that they work hard to fix the economy but they take their eye off the ball in Northern Ireland and paramilitary gangs get stronger. The growth in violent extremism has the potential to be a longer-term threat to the economy than the current recession. The dissidents are growing in strength and capability,” says Mr Sheridan, a former police officer in Northern Ireland.

His comments follow recent criticism of British prime minister David Cameron by Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly, who accused him of making a “serious mistake” in failing to engage with Northern Ireland in the same way as his predecessors.

Mr Allen’s home town of Londonderry has been one of the focal points of discontent. For several nights in July, youths fought police on the Galliagh estate, throwing petrol bombs and setting bins and tyres alight. A 31-year-old man was shot in the legs by RAAD in a suspected dispute between rival dissidents. Since 2008 there have been 40 punishment shootings or “knee cappings” in Londonderry.

Some of the incidents over recent years have harked back to the worst of the troubles. In April the police discovered a 600lb bomb, which was more powerful than the 1998 Omagh bomb that killed 29 people.

This followed the murder in March 2009 of Stephen Carroll, the first member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to be killed by dissidents. Two British soldiers were murdered by dissidents in the same month, shot dead as they collected pizzas from a delivery man. In 2011 a car bomb killed a Catholic policeman.

These killings came as a shock after years of economic boom in which there had been a lull in violence.

Peace provided an economic dividend by attracting foreign investment, particularly in the software, IT and aerospace sectors. There have been large redevelopment projects in Belfast and in Londonderry, which has been named the UK’s inaugural city of culture for 2013. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is 6.9 per cent, which is below the UK’s 8 per cent and has improved greatly from 20 per cent back in 1982. But some working-class Catholic communities are showing a growing alienation from the peace process and from Sinn Féin, the Republican party linked to the IRA that is now part of the Northern Ireland government. Rioting, attacks on police, punishment shootings and threats against Sinn Féin members are common on housing estates in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, Kilwilkie in Lurgan and several estates in Londonderry.

Protestant communities also have violent paramilitaries engaged in rioting, drug-running, assaults and murder. However, security forces say the vast majority of casualties from shootings – in fact, all 33 cases in the 12 months to March – are carried out by Republican groups. The Republicans also attract more attention in the appraisal of security in Northern Ireland because they offer more ideological justifications for their use of violence. Tensions are also raised by internal schisms, with some Republicans frustrated that Sinn Féin has joined the establishment before uniting Ireland.

Tommy McCourt, a Catholic community activist who works at the Rosemont Resource Centre near Londonderry’s deprived Creggan estate, says Sinn Féin is losing its grip.

“People were told they would have a bright future and it would be a land of milk and honey with jobs from the US flowing into Derry. Now the economy is going down big-time and people are asking: ‘What came out of the peace process for us?’ Fuck all is the answer,” says Mr McCourt, a former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which rejects the 1998 peace deal.

Mr McCourt, who keeps a samurai sword in his office, which he jokes helps concentration during meetings, explains that Sinn Féin is seen as too entrenched in Northern Ireland’s governing establishment. The party is also trying to forge a greater mainstream role in Dublin, where it is competing to become the biggest opposition party.

Long-term unemployment is rife on the Creggan estate, with six out of 10 people classed as “economically inactive”. In a sign of the deepening recession, 2,308 people applied for 14 jobs on offer at a new DFS furniture store.

. . .

This hardship has coincided with disenchantment among hardline Republicans over issues ranging from opposition to policing, Sinn Féin’s control over jobs and resources in working-class areas and the imprisonment of several high-profile Republicans, including Marian Price – an IRA militant who helped plant bombs in London in 1973 that killed one person and injured almost 200.

This climate has presented opportunities for hardline groups of dissident Republicans, who oppose the peace process and aim to usurp Sinn Féin and exert control over marginalised communities.

“There are various groupings which have taken on the ideology around violent republicanism but there are no strict demarcation lines between the groups. In different areas it depends on who the lead figures are, who their associates and relatives are and long-term associations, which sometimes have been made in prison,” says Drew Harris, assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

He identifies a surge in dissident activity from 2007 when the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin agreed to share power and members of Sinn Féin began to take their seats on local policing boards. But he says the downturn and weakening construction sector also had an impact because job opportunities were scarce.

Until now, co-operation between dissident groups has been limited and there has been no central command structure – a factor that made the IRA such a potent guerrilla force. But in a statement released by dissident Republicans to the Guardian in July the Real IRA, RAAD and self-styled Óglaigh na hÉireann said they were merging under the banner of the IRA.

It is difficult to determine how coherent they can be given their different geographical strongholds and history of internal feuding.

The PSNI says the dissident threat is not as severe as that posed by the IRA during the troubles, but it acknowledges the danger. There are probably less than 1,000 operational dissidents and closer co-operation with the Irish police is helping to put many in jail. About 180 dissidents have been charged with offences, some with crime-related charges rather than terrorism, says the PSNI.

“Crime is important because it provides funds. Some of the dissidents have got wedded to the lifestyle and there is an element of personal profit. It is often convenient to drape themselves in the cloak of republicanism,” says Mr Harris, who cites fuel and cigarette smuggling, extortion and robberies as staple activities.

Sinn Féin has recently stepped up its criticism of dissidents, describing them as “enemies of Ireland”.

“They (dissidents) have no strategy that makes sense and have minimal support and when they try to stand in elections they have been wiped out,” says Gerry Kelly, a former IRA man who received a life sentence for his part in a 1973 bomb attack in London and is now a member of the Northern Ireland assembly.

He says the dissidents are very different from the IRA because they are run by individuals ruling in small fiefdoms without any central command or rules and regulations. A lack of support means they will not be able to pull Northern Ireland back.

“But anyone with a gun or a bomb can do great damage. The Omagh [bomb] is the perfect example of that and unfortunately that could happen again,” says Mr Kelly, who had his arm broken when he attempted to stop youths protesting in the Ardoyne area.

. . .

On the streets of the Rosemont and Creggan estates in Londonderry and the Ardoyne in Belfast, the battle for control is visible in the graffiti and murals on the walls of houses and shops. Anti-Sinn Féin graffiti has been painted over in several places. Graffiti both for and against the dissidents has been daubed over the walls.

“Some young people really hate the dissidents because they tend to be the victims of their attacks but others join them and are sympathetic to their cause,” says Darren O’Reilly, a Londonderry community worker who takes young people ice skating.

Colm Bryce is a member of a group called “RAAD – Not in Our Name”, which holds rallies to draw attention to the dangers of resurgent violence.

“A lot of us thought after the Omagh bomb, they were finished but now they are coming back and threatening peace,” he says.