The State of The Troubles
Northern Ireland is again in the news. What gives? John de Chastelain reports from Belfast
The recent war in Gaza and other conflicts in the news, coupled with recent murderous attacks in Northern Ireland, have drawn attention once again to that province, raising the question of whether the peace process deemed to be effective there can be a template for conflict resolution elsewhere. Some believe that it can be. George Mitchell’s recent appointment as President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, and Tony Blair’s 2006 appointment as the Quartet’s man there, bring together two statesmen who played key roles in Northern Ireland. In January, Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and former IRA member and now Northern Ireland Assembly member Gerry Kelly, went to Manila and Mindanao to brief the Philippine government and the opposing Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the lessons of the Northern Ireland experience.
But some contend that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique, and that lessons from that conflict are not necessarily transferable. They point out that today some aspects of the Belfast Agreement have still not been fully implemented, and that problems remain. Powers of policing and justice have not been devolved, dissident republican paramilitary groups are still active, and very recently murdered three members of the security forces. Loyalist paramilitary groups have also yet to decommission their arms. They note that some communities are still separated by so-called ‘peace barriers,’ sectarianism still exists and the reorganized Police Service of Northern Ireland is still regarded with suspicion in some areas. These factors notwithstanding, most would agree that the situation in Northern Ireland today is very much improved, and that the way forward proposed in the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement provides the most hopeful path to a lasting peace there.
Since its re-establishment nearly two years ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been governing the province effectively, even if with inter-party disagreements common to all democratic parliamentary systems. Differences over education, the spending of public funds for the establishment of a sports stadium on the site of a former prison, the issue of truth and reconciliation, and concern over the effect of the current world fiscal situation on the interrelated economies of Ireland, both north and south, are problems that face Members daily during sessions of the Stormont Assembly.
Issues left unresolved from the Belfast Agreement are due for particular attention in the coming months. Debates on the devolution of policing and justice are intended to decide
that issue before the end of the year. Loyalist paramilitary groups have been given twelve months to decommission their arms with the International Commission, and both nationalist and unionist political parties have urged the people of Northern Ireland to support the police in their work to bring to justice those members of the dissident republican paramilitary groups responsible for the murders of the two soldiers and the policeman.
In the referendum held on the 1998 Agreement, and in the election following the 2006 Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland voted in favour of the peace process as it was reflected in both those Acts. The focus of Assembly Members now is to see the process fully implemented, and to address the day-to-day needs and concerns of the citizens.
If elements of the process are exportable, so be it. For the people of Northern Ireland, the process is still ongoing.
Since retiring from the Canadian Forces in 1995, John de Chastelain has been involved in the Northern Ireland peace process – since 1997, as Chairman of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.