Northern Ireland’s paralysis in a world of uncertainty
This chapter concludes the book by considering three ‘existential’ challenges to Northern Ireland as it enters its second century of existence. The first is that of the coronavirus pandemic. The chapter considers how the pandemic put pressures on the Executive that had been newly established after the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ accord of January 2020. The integration of Northern Ireland with Ireland and with Great Britain posed particular challenges when it came to managing the coronavirus. Managing the challenge was made a lot easier in practical and political terms when the approaches of the British and Irish governments became more closely aligned. The ease with which the coronavirus could become another issue over which unionists and nationalists could have opposing views was no surprise. The pandemic hit within a few weeks of the UK leaving the European Union. What it meant for Northern Ireland depended greatly on the compromise negotiated between the UK and EU in the form of the Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol. This compromise was made necessary by those same open borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland and Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This chapter summarises what this may mean for Northern Ireland and how the Brexit debate further polarises unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland. The constitutional debate has re-emerged as a ‘live’ issue. This could lead to deepening polarisation, but it could also provoke serious consideration of what sort of society people would like to build out of a wholly transformed global economic, political and social context.
The most controversial provision of the Good Friday Agreement was the decision to free all prisoners belonging to paramilitary organisations observing ceasefires. In this chapter, we trace the experience of former combatants released on licence under Northern Ireland’s political settlement. The attempt to move beyond conflict in the region entailed a strategy of ‘Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration’. While the first two of these imperatives have been pursued largely successfully, there have been serious problems with the implementation of the third. Former combatants remain subject to intense vetting which often precludes them from certain jobs, and in so doing leaves them on the margins of Northern Irish society. The multiple ways in which ex-prisoners are stigmatically shamed impacts not only on them but also on their wider family networks. As we illustrate in detail, the current vetting procedures at times ensure that individuals are barred from employment because of their familial connection to former combatants they may never have met. While the success of the Northern Irish peace process required the reintegration of ex-prisoners, the ongoing attempts to stigmatise them means that there are many former paramilitaries who have made a real contribution to maintaining the political settlement, but who have nonetheless been condemned to material poverty and mental illness.
This chapter seeks to tease out the complexities and challenges surrounding the issue of legacy in Northern Ireland. In doing so, it argues that Northern Ireland requires a holistic approach whereby state and non-state endeavours work to mutually cooperate and reinforce each other in ways that support practices of social reconciliation and peace-building. While the discussion that follows details a wide range of legacy initiatives, the common thread running throughout is that many of Northern Ireland’s endeavours to address the past, though by no means all, are embedded in processes of assigning culpability and blame, rather than reconciliation and transformation. Thus, although reconciliation is of course contested, the chapter contends that until legacy is reframed as a process that is transformative, conciliatory and mutually beneficial, it will largely remain a communicative platform for expressions of recrimination, mistrust and oppositionality. Seeking truth and confronting the legacy of violence, whether through centralised formal commissions, bottom-up approaches or a combination of both, must be viewed not as a single panacea to legacy but as part of a broad suite of measures which include a discernible link with social reconciliation. While the prospect of dealing with the past and even the establishment of a truth recovery process presents significant challenges, the prospect of a present (and a future) that is continually vexed with regular, fragmented disclosures about the past is equally daunting.
In this chapter, we provide an overview of political developments since the Good Friday Agreement in order to establish the historical context for the diverse essays that follow. We begin by depicting the tensions, especially over the issue of ‘decommissioning’, that hobbled the early attempts at power-sharing government and would lead to several suspensions of the Stormont assembly. We then move on to explain how it was that the supposedly ‘extremist’ parties – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party – were able to forge the deal that would, finally, bring seemingly stable devolved government to Northern Ireland. For all the semblance of stability, these unlikely coalition partners would over time become riven by multiple and deepening forms of division. Some of these arose out of the ethnonational disputes that are the traditional fare of Northern Irish political life – flags, parades and language rights. Others would derive from class issues less familiar to the political culture in the region – in particular, the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act. These tensions would eventually lead to the collapse of the Stormont institutions, a suspension that was widely attributed to a controversial renewable energy scheme but in fact owed a great deal more to developments elsewhere in the UK. The outcome of the Brexit referendum has altered, perhaps irrevocably, the political context of Northern Ireland, ushering in an era of profound constitutional flux. While the Stormont assembly has been restored, the advent of the coronavirus has merely served to highlight the animosities that exist among the supposed coalition partners. As Northern Ireland prepares for its centenary, there are forces at play that threaten/promise to question its very existence in the very near future.
Spectres of the past in recent Northern Irish cinema and television
This chapter is intended to complement the two previous chapters by examining how the afterlives of the Troubles have been played out on the big and the small screen. Given that the political settlement in Northern Ireland made no meaningful provision for dealing with the multiple ‘legacy issues’ arising from the conflict, it has hardly been a surprise that the region’s violent recent past has come back to haunt it. One of the spaces in which this has been most evident is in the fictions scripted for cinema and television that have appeared since the restoration of devolved government in 2007. Employing Mark Fisher’s reading of the Derridean notion of ‘hauntology’ to frame our analysis, we examine a number of recent films and TV series concerned with Northern Ireland. In the world of cinema, we examine features such as Hunger, ’71 and Good Vibrations. On the small screen, we provide close readings of The Fall and Derry Girls. While these visual representations often differ greatly in terms of both tone and content, they all suggest that, even a generation after the end of the Troubles, Northern Ireland remains haunted not only by those that were lost during the conflict but also that which was lost in the transition to peace.
Northern Ireland is a society not just of two communities but of many. This chapter uses empirical data from surveys and election studies to get a detailed, up-to-date impression of the range of identities held by people living in Northern Ireland today and, importantly, to consider what this means for the future. The chapter deliberately looks ‘in between’ the binaries which tend to be drawn across Northern Irish society. First, it looks at the growth of those who identify as having no religion and considers how this might impact on social preferences in the longer term. It also examines the steady increase in the proportion of those who describe themselves as being neither unionist nor nationalist, and considers whether this constitutes a common identity or mainly a rejection of a divisive politics. Related to this is the fact that many people of different backgrounds in Northern Ireland think of themselves as both British and Irish. The chapter considers what this means, as well as looking to see what is distinctive about the ‘Northern Irish’ identity as it has come to be conceived. Although it is strikingly homogenous compared to its neighbours, the population of Northern Ireland is increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse and made up of people who were born outside the region. However, statistics show that prejudice and intolerance are certainly not problems of the past in Northern Ireland. Although the younger generation are less likely to oppose mixing and immigration than their parents, they are also less likely to vote and still largely conditioned to think of society in binary terms.
In this opening chapter, we set the scene for the book by challenging the almost hegemonic view that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is, in the words of President Clinton, a ‘work of genius’ that should be adopted as a model for other societies emerging from conflict. We begin by suggesting that we need to regard the Northern Irish ‘peace process’ in plural terms and, in particular, to acknowledge the often crucial ‘vernacular’ forms of peace-building’ that go on at community level. We then move to suggest that the reliance of the GFA on certain ‘liberal’ and ‘realist’ readings of international relations has ensured that it has three principal flaws. First, the celebrated peace deal is premised on a familiar but arbitrary temporal distinction between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ which renders it unable to deal with the complex afterlives of the Troubles. Second, the GFA rests on an implicit hierarchy of victims which ensures it cannot acknowledge certain ever more prevalent forms of violence in Northern Irish society. Finally, the political settlement in Northern Ireland assumes a political and cultural binary – that between ‘unionists’ and ‘nationalists’ – which no longer adequately describes the complexities of identity in the region. Having set out this critique, we conclude that the Northern Irish peace process has been rather less than the success that many influential global figures would have us believe.
The Good Friday Agreement is widely celebrated as a political success story, one that has brought peace to a region previously synonymous across the globe with political violence. The truth, as ever, is rather more complicated than that. In many respects, the era of the peace process has seen Northern Irish society change almost beyond recognition. Those incidents of politically motivated violence that were once commonplace have become thankfully rare, and a new generation has emerged whose identities and interests are rather more fluid and cosmopolitan than those of their parents. In many other regards, however, Northern Ireland continues to operate in the long shadow of its own turbulent recent past. Those who were victims of violence, as well as those who were its agents, have often been consigned to the margins of a society clearly still struggling to cope with the traumas of the Troubles. Furthermore, the transition to ‘peace’ has revealed the existence of new, and not so new, forms of violence in Northern Irish society, not least those directed towards women, ethnic minorities and the poor. In Northern Ireland a generation after Good Friday, we set out to capture the complex, and often contradictory, realities that have emerged more than two decades on from the region’s vaunted peace deal. Across nine original essays, the book provides a critical and comprehensive reading of a society that often appears to have left its violent past behind but at the same time remains subject to its gravitational pull.
In the early stages of the peace process, a series of global players insisted that the permanent end of the conflict would lead to the revival of Northern Ireland’s long ailing economy. That promised ‘peace dividend’ has, however, never materialised. Although the Good Friday Agreement was signed during a period of global economic expansion, the advent of peace would fail to change Northern Ireland’s status as one of the UK regions where poverty and worklessness are most pronounced. In spite of their supposed ideological differences, both Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would adhere to neoliberal strategies that would merely compound the disadvantage of those communities that had suffered most during the Troubles. The immiseration of working-class districts would be heightened further with the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act in Northern Ireland. As we document in detail, the controversial changes to the social security system have led to even more glaring levels of poverty, indexed most graphically in the proliferation of food banks in the region. We conclude by suggesting that while the collusion of Sinn Féin and the DUP in the introduction of the new welfare regime has created the conditions of the possibility of a more leftist politics, historical experience counsels caution about the potential of such alternative voices.
Women and the promise of peace in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) marked itself out as significant for its commitment to ‘the right of women to full and equal participation in political life’. Moreover, some also lauded the relatively high levels of visibility and participation of women within the wider peace process. Although dominant, state-centric forms of conflict transition claim to be universally beneficial, evidence from the so-called ‘post-conflict’ period around the world demonstrates a continuity of violence and inequality for women, with many also facing new forms of violent practices. As a society emerging from protracted armed conflict, Northern Ireland is no exception. This chapter explores the position of women in Northern Ireland today, and by doing so seeks to problematise the ‘post-conflict’ narrative by gendering peace and security. The diverse issues explored here – from women’s political representation to gender-based violence and abortion – are linked and embedded within a structural and cultural gender order which invariably privileges masculinity and male power. The chapter finds that despite the widespread optimism among many feminists and women, what emerged in the place of the promised ‘equalities and inclusions’ agenda of the GFA is in fact an era of ‘neo-patriarchy’. While the GFA did undoubtedly provide the potential for a new era of greater equality between the sexes, more than twenty years on, Northern Irish society exhibits all the trademarks and insidious characteristics of a patriarchal society that has yet to undergo a genuine transformation in gender relations.