Northern Ireland: a peace process in crisis

9 Aug 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Aug 2018

Peace: outlook gloomy. Pic: Daniel Pascoa, Unsplash

A coalition of peace builders in Northern Ireland is reaching out to the community and voluntary sector to help inject new life into a faltering process.

The initiative builds on the report Galvanising the Peace which was published last year. It was developed after consultation with hundreds of individuals and organisations involved in good relations who in turn consulted with their communities.

It concluded that the peace process is in crisis – and it is difficult to see how the situation has improved in the intervening period.

It is first important to deal with the common misconception that peace is done and dusted and was achieved when armed conflict ended.

This is never the case, as students of Iraq know only too well. In Northern Ireland the situation is even more complex because there was no clear cut victory. The national question was not resolved, what instead happened was that room was created to move away from armed conflict to a democratic resolution to the issues we collectively face.

Therefore the best way to look at the peace process, as the report notes is “as an ongoing series of actions and initiatives that have been designed and implemented to bring about an end to the armed conflict, to create the basis for a sustained and inclusive political settlement, and to support reconciliation between people from different communities and backgrounds.”

This is as good a definition as we will get and we need to constantly remind ourselves of it. It is a process that needs to be nurtured and developed. It is our most important collective challenge – one we neglect at our peril.

Progress has been made since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but even before the collapse of Stormont goodwill was eroding away and shadowy forces opposed to the settlement were hovering, seeking to exploit division and tension.

Today we have no government, relationships between political parties are at an all-time low, as is public confidence in them. And Brexit, with all the fears and uncertainties it entails, casts a shadow of uncertainty over our future.

To this we can add a faltering economy which has left those that suffered the most during the conflict no better off than before it; visible interfaces in Belfast which keep people apart and damage local economies, and invisible ones in rural areas that have a similar impact.

Government has collapsed at a time when many conflict-related issues remain unresolved – especially those that require the kind of strong leadership that is so manifestly lacking in increasingly tribal politicians; those involved in conflict resolution are seeing budgets severely cut; and many of the factors that stoke and entrench division, segregated schooling and housing for example, are left in the “too difficult” box.

That’s even before we consider the unresolved “legacy” issues which continue to fester, inflaming division, compounding hurt and creating an all-encompassing sense of injustice no matter which community you are from.

Divisions between the communities are not helped by another divide, just as invidious. This between those who suffered most in the conflict and those who barely were, yet have gained most from the peace. These are often people in positions of power and influence who sneer at and deride citizens from working class communities, demonizing them as some latter day Untermensch without troubling themselves to examine the causes of continued community tension and unrest and to contribute to its resolution.

For them, episodes of unrest are embarrassing and damaging to business and commerce rather than symptoms of a failure of political leadership, an unfair, failing education system which favours the elite, the lack of social mobility, economic injustice, and their own failure to engage.

On top of this we have the continued presence of paramilitary groups, most on ceasefire, most telling us they are committed to peace and many of which act as self-appointed gate-keepers to the communities they still coerce and influence.

As if this, far from exhaustive list, were not enough, we can add racism and homophobia to the mix.

Galvanising the Peace is an important document because it pulls together what those involved on the ground in conflict resolution see happening around them. But the coalition formed as a result of the report is not leaving the matter there.

It forcefully points out that the peace process is not just a matter for politicians, it is an issue for all of us.

In fact despite the collapse of political institutions and the funding cuts they continue to suffer work on the ground continues. There have been many successes. There are many examples of progress with some communities reporting that levels of confidence and co-operation between communities surging ahead of the peace process.

Civic society has a good track record in conflict work and showed leadership in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Galvanising the Peace Coalition believes it is time for a new concerted thrust to get peoples’ voices heard and to inject new life into the peace process.

It is appealing for other voluntary and community groups to get involved and is also engaging with local authorities.

At a time of political vacuum it believes that there is a place for more direct involvement of ordinary citizens in democracy – especially around many of the critical issues which have proved so intractable to politicians. That is why it is supporting the Building Change Trust-funded Civic Assembly, due to meet this Autumn as a pilot project.

A Citizen’s Assembly in Northern Ireland has no legal status currently, but it could, and should, once politicians return to their posts. In other jurisdictions, most notably the Republic, such bodies have proved helpful in resolving problems politicians find too difficult. The repeal of the 8th Amendment came off the back of such an assembly, paving the way for legalising abortion.

Our peace process needs help, and our politicians need help to progress it. Today they seem locked in tribalism unable, or unwilling, to show the courage that true leadership takes to resolve long-standing and sensitive issues that are holding us back.

Civic society is not showing true leadership unless it campaigns on these issues. And the Galvanising Peace Coalition is showing just that. It deserves widespread support. 

It is, of course impossible to make progress on peace building without Ministers in place to enact policy and to stimulate economic recovery. But in the meantime civic society can outline what needs to be done, people can have their say through an assembly, and then politicians can be challenged to do the right thing – and lead us to a stable, better future where communities respect one another and are at ease with themselves.


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