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Will a troubled history repeat itself in Northern Ireland?

It looks unlikely,as tens of thousands protest recent violence

Written by Souvik Mukherjee | March 18, 2009 12:47:47 am

Today,most places from Moscow to Montseraat will be full of large crowds wearing green shamrock hats and drinking Guinness and joining pageants for St Patrick’s Day. This year,however,the revelries might be dampened. The reason: in the wake of the recent police shooting and the attack on the Massereene army barracks by two factions of the Irish Republican Army (IRA),the world is apprehensive about the peace process in Northern Ireland.

During the Irish War of Independence,the IRA enjoyed huge popular support,against colonial Britain and its infamous Black and Tan forces. For decades after the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that divided Ireland into the Irish Free State and the British territory of Northern Ireland,Irish history was marked by a period of civil strife now notorious as the Ulster Troubles. Religious issues between Protestants and Catholics also escalated into decades of a full-fledged war between Loyalist and Republican paramilitary forces. Added to these,the repressive measures taken by the British government such as the Bloody Sunday in January 1972,where paratroopers opened fire on unarmed protesters,and the hunger strikes of the 1980s boosted support for the IRA. After decades of protest,negotiation and mutual tension,however,an overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland finally agreed to a peaceful settlement during the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In the aftermath of the agreement,the paramilitary organisations were decommissioned,Irish was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and political prisoners were released. Not everyone,however,was satisfied. The Provisional IRA,formed in 1969,now engendered offshoots like the Real IRA and the lesser-known Continuity IRA. The Real IRA was soon to threaten the peace process with the car bomb planted in Omagh,soon after the Good Friday Agreement. It has continued its activities despite worldwide outrage: including attacks on Hammersmith Bridge in London,the MI6 building and the BBC. The Eighth Independent Monitoring Commissioning Report (2006) warns of the threat of Real IRA’s weapons stockpile and warns of the possible local cooperation of the Real and the Continuity IRA.

Last week,these fears came true. In a drive-by shooting the Real IRA killed two soldiers and two pizza deliverymen,called “collaborators” by the terrorists. Within days,the Continuity IRA claimed responsibility for a professionally executed sniper attack on a policeman. These incidents have shaken Northern Ireland anew. World leaders including the Pope as well as the British and Irish prime ministers have condemned the incident. Even ex-IRA heavyweight and now the deputy first minister,Martin McGuinness,told the BBC that he denied the Real IRA’s right to restart the war. This time,however,the man in the street has also expressed in no uncertain terms that this violence is unwelcome. ‘Not in my name’,ran one of the slogans in the massive rally of tens of thousands of silent mourners all over Northern Ireland — especially towns like Belfast,Londonderry,Newry and Lisburn. Jackie Macdonald,the ‘brigadier’ of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) has repudiated the killings but has stated that there will be no retaliation. The government has also ruled out army deployment.

It is difficult to say,at this moment,how these attacks will impact the Irish peace process. The dissident groups’ attempts to claim a unified Ireland has been decried by the populace as misguided,but that they have stirred raw emotions on both sides,is undeniable. The old apprehensions from just a decade ago are returning again. However,with the build-up of security and strong condemnations by politicians and the majority of the populace,one hopes that these tensions will be replaced by stronger feelings of goodwill and solidarity.

The writer is a postgraduate researcher at Nottingham Trent University

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