Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What Hope for Ulster ?

A version of this piece will appear in The Edmonton Journal on Thursday, 29th September 2005

Anyone who thinks that peace will now be the norm in Northern Ireland is mistaken.

The complex battle for Ulster, as Northern Ireland is known, will continue for many years. While the IRA has given up some weapons (we are not sure how comprehensive their recent decommissioning really is, since all observers were chosen by the IRA), not all Republicans are IRA supporters and many of the republican splinter groups will continue to use all means, including violence, to achieve the unification of Ireland.

So called “loyalist” groups – no one seems sure what or to whom they are now loyal to, since it’s the Queen’s own regiments that have been fighting them for these last thirty six years – continue to battle both the Republicans and each other. In mid September, loyalists groups battled with each other and Republicans over the routing of a traditional loyalist march at Whiterock, sparking the worst riots in Northern Ireland for many years.

While the Blair government continue to speak of peace and the peace process for Ulster, it feels similar to the peace process in Iraq. Institutions have been created which many do not want and which are currently suspended due to the criminal behaviour of the Republicans and the reluctance of the Democratic Unionist Party to collaborate with “terrorists”. Fighting, whether real or verbal, covers the gamut from policing, the constitution, and the nature of democratic institutions. At the heart of these fights are fundamentalists views about Ireland and the role of ideology.

There are signs of a worsening situation everywhere. Ten years ago there were 21 so-called “peace walls” – barriers between communities aimed at reducing tension, rather like the wall Israel is building around itself to separate itself from the Palestinians. There are now over 60 “peace walls”. Ten years ago, the issue was Ireland and its future. Now the issue is partly about supporting the criminal activities of gangs (drugs, prostitution, identity theft) so as to sustain the lifestyle of many gang members. The lack of trust between players is worse now than it has been for some time, especially given that Ulster is ruled directly from Whitehall by former apartheid campaigner, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain.

The US Special Envoy to Ireland, Michael Rees, is pessimistic about Ulster. He notes the lack of courageous and creative leadership on all sides. Other observers note that the lack of real equitable economic growth in Ulster as compared to Ireland is also a source of tension, with many of the “new” poor being protestant unionists. The growing poverty of traditional loyalist areas is increasing their sense of alienation.

There is no solution to Ulster. The world needs to get used to the idea that on an island at the edge of Europe there is a battle going on that is largely being “managed” but not resolved. As one writer has said recently “don’t expect to understand Northern Ireland, because you won’t: simply remember that you are manacled to this ranting, gibbering lunatic for ever”. He may well be right.

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