Return of The Troubles?
Print Issue: February 2012
BETWEEN 1969 AND the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, more than 3,600 people were killed in Northern Ireland in a period known as “The Troubles.” The Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought Protestant Unionist paramilitaries, the British Army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in an attempt to free Northern Ireland of British rule. Though nothing can erase the legacy of hate and hurt, the peace has lasted for nearly 14 years.
Now dissident groups that never signed on to the accords threaten to change that, according to researchers John Horgan, director of Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and John F. Morrison, of the University of East London’s School of Law, who published a paper in the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence. The two studied recent dissident activity and found that both the level and type of attacks have been increasing.
“Though large scale terrorist activity has been relegated to the past, an escalation of low-level terrorist activity by Irish Republican splinter groups has recently reached its highest level in 10 years,” the researchers write. Among the breakaway Irish Republican terror groups, known as “the dissidents” (characterized by their refusal to sign up to the 1998 peace accord), are the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, which began to reassert themselves through violent acts in 2009.
The violence that year inaugurated a worrisome trend, according to Horgan and Morrison. Before 2009, the worst year for violent dissident Republican (VDR) activity was 2001, when 55 attacks occurred. In 2009, the number was 91. Then came a surge in VDR activity in 2010. The attacks numbered 185, an increase slightly over 100 percent.
The growing use of bombs by VDR groups also made the trend more destructive and frightening. According to Horgan and Morrison, there were 73 dissident bombing incidents in 2010, up from 24 in 2009. Bombings have continued into 2011. One attack attributed to dissident Republicans entailed a one-pound bomb attached under the car of Constable Ronan Kerr of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The explosion killed Kerr, who was clearly the target. The bomb “was probably detonated by a tilt switch, which is set off by movement,” the BBC reported.
That attack shows that frequency is not the only important metric, Horgan tells Security Management. The level of sophistication of those attacks and their impact also matters.
The question now is what to do about the threat to peace. Horgan says that mainstream Republican groups have a primary role to play in stopping Republican and Nationalist youth from joining in the new wave of attacks.
That won’t be easy, given the history. “We have young children, teenagers for example, lamenting the fact that they weren’t able to get involved in the conflict, lamenting the fact that they didn’t spend time in prison with this romantic Republican culture,” says Horgan. “There is a paramilitary culture which the dissident groups are trying to use to groom young kids into becoming involved.”
Nongovernmental organizations and activists, however, are not sitting idly by. Michael Culbert, who spent 16 years in prison for killing a police officer during The Troubles and who is now director of Coiste, a network of Republican ex-prisoners, says his organization is trying to fight the dissidents. They are constantly engaged with schools and youth groups to ensure that children and teenagers from Republican communities stay on the path of nonviolence and peaceful politics. He and his colleagues use their status as fighters to persuade youth that the time for armed struggle has passed.
Culbert’s group tells kids that there are other ways to get involved. One of the things Culbert advises Republican youth to do is join the PSNI, something unthinkable decades ago. He explains to them that he wants idealistic and “critically aware” young people to join organizations like the police service so that they can begin to “change society from within those types of structures.”
The International Fund for Ireland (IFI) is another organization dedicated to ensuring that fringe groups, whether Nationalist or Unionist, do not harm the peace. “Our major concern is the influence these [paramilitary] groups can exert over young people and their ability to potentially destabilize the peace process,” Chairman Dr. Denis Rooney says.
While Rooney believes Northern Ireland has made enormous progress, he says problems remain in “interface areas,” places where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods border each other and where peace has had the least traction. It’s in these areas that the IFI has begun to focus its attention by “promoting social and economic advance and encouraging contact, dialogue, and reconciliation between Nationalists and Unionists,” he notes. Currently the IFI is seeking financial assistance from the U.S. government and the European Union to fund its work in these areas.
No matter how hard dissident Republicans try to break the peace, Brian Gormally, director of the human rights organization Committee on the Administration of Justice Ltd., doesn’t believe the violent sectarianism of The Troubles will return. While acknowledging the “tragic consequences” of recent attacks by armed dissident factions, he says, Northern Ireland has made great strides over the last decade in the struggle for human rights and equality. “We believe we are basically in a post-conflict situation,” he says “All the major armed groups that were engaged in the conflict have ceased violence, disarmed, and demobilized.”
That’s why Gormally stresses that the PSNI must address the threat from these groups proportionally. “As regards the responsibility of state agencies, we are generally of the view that upholding human rights and fostering participation and political engagement are more effective ways of stemming political violence than emergency powers,” he says.
Gormally says his group is concerned over police antiterrorism powers in Northern Ireland which allow police to stop and question people without reasonable suspicion. He also notes that the perception that 35 Irish Republican dissident prisoners in Maghaberry prison are being mistreated has caused outrage in Republican communities. “We are not saying that these two issues ‘cause’ dissident Republican violence nor that resolving them would make it go away. It would, however, help to build confidence in a peaceful way forward,” Gormally notes.
Sounding a note of optimism, Horgan says Northern Ireland has a tremendous track record of not allowing the fringe to reignite the debate between violence and peaceful politics. “Northern Ireland stands as an amazing case study of how civil society responses to terrorism can actually prove very detrimental to these groups,” he says.