Downturn puts N Ireland peace under fire
By John Murray Brown - February 24 2011 – Financial Times
A large steel plate covers the spot where an IRA rocket embedded itself in the gable end of Dicky Magill’s grocery shop in the hard-bitten Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan, County Armagh.
“In the 1970s it was wild here,” says Martin Casey, who lives nearby. “There were gun battles all the time.”
Senior security officials are concerned that paramilitary activity may be on the rise again at a time of severe public spending cuts and a downturn in the local economy. They fear disaffected youths are being thrust into the arms of militant dissident groups that broke away from the mainstream IRA in protest at the peace strategy pursued by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, and Martin McGuinness, the former IRA leader who is now deputy first minister in the power-sharing executive.
“Of course there are kids who end up in gangs in Liverpool and Manchester and Dublin but they don’t have the potential to plant a 200lb bomb in a town centre,” says Peter Sheridan, a former senior policeman who heads Co-operation Ireland, a charity involved in an innovative project to help young people on the estate find work placements.
“We’re trying to pick the people who might be the Martin McGuinness or the Jackie McDonald [an infamous loyalist leader] of the future. The natural leaders,” he says.
Economists question the direct link between paramilitary violence and public spending, arguing that Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles received a much higher level of public spending – and is still a third higher – than the UK average and yet the IRA campaign went on.
Today the problem is exacerbated by the splitting of responsibility for the security response to the dissident threat between London and the devolved administration at Stormont, which since last year has been in charge of policing.
The voluntary sector and other outreach services provided to those communities affected comes from the devolved budget, which has been cut by 11 per cent, although this is considerably less than many Whitehall departments.
Nonetheless, local politicians believe there is a danger essential community work could be undermined. Alex Attwood, social development minister, says: “It is essential that community and voluntary sector groups that do the hard work in areas where other government agencies don’t go are protected.”
He says the dissidents are “targeting those groups who feel they did not get a dividend from peace”.
A senior police officer who prefers to remain anonymous says the young men joining the splinter terrorist groups “don’t have a memory of the awfulness of what happened before but they think it’s exciting and they have nothing better to do”. He adds that the current crop have no support from the wider republican community.
Mr Sheridan points to the 17-year-old youth from Lurgan at present on remand for the murder of Stephen Carroll, an officer with the Police Service of Northern Ireland who was shot dead while on patrol in nearby Craigavon in January 2009 – the last security service person to be killed.
“That boy was only three years old when the IRA declared its ceasefire,” he says.
Mr Sheridan believes successive governments have not been active enough in promoting what he calls “peace building”, part of which is fostering reconciliation between communities. “Government isn’t particularly good at looking at the long term. But if we don’t do something the danger is we’ll be settling for segregation as a solution, which it isn’t.”
He reels off a depressing list of statistics to illustrate Northern Ireland’s community divisions. Since the ceasefires the number of “peace walls” erected by the authorities to separate rival Protestant and Roman Catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast has grown from 18 to 88. Social housing is now almost totally segregated. Integrated education, in spite of government support, covers just 9 per cent of schoolchildren.
“I don’t think people will ever live together,” says Mr Casey, the Kilwilkie resident. The problem is not lack of funding for community projects, he believes. “That’s appeasement money, I call it. Sinn Féin are given that money so they’ll not come back to the Troubles.”
Dolores Kelly, local assembly member for the Social Democratic and Labour party, also says it is “simplistic” to link dissident activity with economic deprivation. She recalls the son of one of her constituents, a well-paid civil servant, who was arrested while rioting.
She says one of the biggest problems is the continuing “glorification” by Sinn Féin of the events of the Troubles.
Others, however, insist it is wrong to discount the positive impact of the recently truncated economic boom, which did much to keep young men out of the clutches of the terrorist gangs.
Richard Ramsey, chief economist at Ulster Bank in Belfast, says the growth in construction during the property bubble “worked a little like a good social policy, mopping up skilled but also unskilled labour on both sides of the border”.
“There were clear benefits from the Celtic Tiger,” says the unnamed senior police officer. “There is no question about that.”
I am very familiar with the Kilwilkie housing estate as I have many friends in Lurgan. This article solidifies a long held theory of mine that the ultimate success or failure of the peace process in Ireland lies not with this generation or past ones, but rather with the upcoming generation and future ones. Crucial to the effort to sustain the very fragile peace is supporting and nurturing cross community youth oriented programs. Ex-prisoner retraining programs, which at their inception were very commendable, have long since served their purpose. It is time not to forget the past, but to apply the mistakes learned from it and move on toward the future. As stated in the article, erecting more “peace walls” and glorifying the violence of the past is not the pathway to a peaceful and secure future. The youth of Ireland deserve much more. Is it any wonder that they are emigrating by the thousands?
Jack Meehan, Past National President
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America