Current Affairs Politics

One Step At A Time – The Belfast Agreement And Beyond

Now that the dust has settled an examination of the news reports issued over the last three days reveals just how widespread the violence in the North of Ireland was, in reaction to marches by the Orange Order (the Protestant fundamentalist organisation based in the British Unionist community in Ireland). Street clashes between protestors and the PSNI (the British paramilitary police force in the North) occurred in Belfast, Derry, Strabane, Newry, Ballymena and Armagh. While some were fairly brief affairs others were more prolonged, involving up to two hundred people over two or three nights of rioting, in some cases well organised and sustained.

This has led to accusations of ‘orchestration’ being thrown at Dissident Republican organisations but as yet the PSNI has neither confirmed or denied such accusations. Though both elements of Sinn Féin and Unionism are pushing this line no concrete proof has emerged and the matter is far less dry-cut as was the case with the organised assaults on the isolated Irish civilian enclave of the Short Strand, with mobs being led by the British terrorist group the UVF.

Some have linked the Dissidents’ supposed machinations to the manipulation of disaffected youth in Nationalist areas, who are either portrayed as innocent teens led astray by older more sinister elements or straightforward hooligans and vandals led by thugs.

According to UTV the Sinn Féin representative in Derry, Martina Anderson, stated that:

‘…the violence was “orchestrated” and described it as “an orgy of destruction”.

“Let’s be clear the vandalism and wanton destruction in the Bogside last night was just that,” she said.

“They are vandals pure and simple, they are an embarrassment to the nationalist people, there is no political motivation for these activities.

“While the orchestration of the trouble in the Bogside is encouraged by a small number of people opposed to the peace process and anti-community elements coming together no political progress can be made by burning a number of vehicles and holding the community they come from hostage”, she added.’

This has been echoed by other SF spokespeople, as well as the SDLP’s Alban Maginness in Belfast who claimed that:

‘…he didn’t think any public representatives could have had much effect on the rioters.

“There was no actual reason for the riot, beyond the fact that a small number of people wanted a riot, planned a riot and got a riot,” he said.’

So, while some have attempted to blame various factors for the eruptions in the Nationalist areas of the North (Dissidents, unemployment, poverty, ant-social youth criminals or gangs) a more realistic and for most Peace Process politicians unpalatable factor is an ideological one. The possibility that a younger generation of Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland under the aegis of the Belfast Agreement no longer find it an acceptable political or constitutional arrangement, and wish for more, seems to be gaining ground.

Henry McDonald touches upon this in the Guardian:

‘The official explanation for why there has been an upsurge in street violence in Northern Ireland this marching season is that it is the product of a socioeconomic underclass, nihlistic “recreational” rioting or apolitical thuggery.

However, this is to ignore two important factors as to why hundreds have come on to the streets to confront a heavily armed and protected PSNI.

The first of these is ideology: many of those young republicans taking part in street violence across the city and beyond have little or no investment in the current political settlement at Stormont. Unemployed and with little prospect of long-term, fulfilling jobs, this social group is alienated from the political process. They see all politicians and especially those from “their side” as part of the establishment, aloof and indifferent to them.

Sprinkle on top the influence of ideologically-fired republican dissident organisations from the Real IRA to the Continuity IRA and you have an explosive mix ready to detonate at any time but in particular during the marching season.

The conclusion to the younger disgruntled republicans already spoiling for a fight was that the most powerful message you could transmit to the state was via violence. This is why there has been such an upsurge during the 2011 marching season and why the possible winners in the current battle of territory in Northern Ireland may be the republican dissident organisations, who will soon have another slew of recruits from among the streetfighters battling the security forces across Belfast and beyond.’

While McDonald goes some way in his analysis he does not go far enough. This is not simply a question of a depressed economy, or out-of-work youth, or disaffected youth, though these things do contribute towards unrest and radicalisation. It is rather a generation of Irish men and women, those in their teens and early twenties, for whom the ‘Long War’ is a memory, the subject of history and folklore as much as personal experience and reality. Men and women who are now aged 20 were 7 when the Belfast Agreement of 1998 was signed. They were 5 when the second IRA ceasefire of 1996 took place.

They are not the ‘children of the Troubles’ the way their older siblings or their parents are. Nor do they have they ingrained patience or tolerance for political change those generations had. They are progressive, nationalist and Irish in a way even their parents couldn’t emulate. For them the ‘Border’ is meaningless, ‘Northern Ireland’ is meaningless, British rule is meaningless. They see themselves as wholly Irish and view the present arrangements as more of an infringement than an enhancement of that. It is not that they don’t want the Belfast Agreement. They do. Rather it is that they want the Belfast Agreement Plus. They want more. And they demand more.

Far from the end of all violence (and for some parties to the agreement by implication all political movement) the Belfast Agreement of 1998 is merely another stepping stone on a journey with one destination and one end.

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