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Opinion: The violence this week was choreographed by criminal gangs using children as fodder

Emma DeSouza says the unrest in the North is not a failure of peace but a failure of leadership.

Emma DeSouza

IT WAS 23 years ago today when Senator George Mitchell said, “I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political leaders of Northern Ireland have reached agreement.”

The violent scenes that erupted last week on the anniversary (in name) of the Good Friday Agreement and have continued to this day have engulfed Northern politics and terrorised communities.

The scenes of brutality are difficult to watch, in particular, because of how young the majority of the rioters are, with children as young as 12 involved, many of whom will now face criminal convictions for their part in this violence.

These outbursts, in predominantly working-class areas, are not an organic spill-over of community discontent, rather, they are carefully organised events by those who are intent on sowing the seeds of anger and instability – what has transpired this week is not a failure of the peace process but a failure of leadership.

History in full circle

We have been here before; unionism has a history of luring young and impressionable Loyalists to the top of a hill, only to abandon and condemn them once they have inevitably tumbled back down.

The response from unionist leaders has been tepid, with the majority of unionist representatives more intent it seems on laying the blame for the violence at the feet of Sinn Féin – a clear attempt to further their own selfish political aims.

What we have yet to see is unionist leaders take any responsibility for their own actions. Both the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster and leader of the UUP Steve Aiken were calling for the resignation of chief constable Simon Bryne three days before the first riot, in which police were assaulted with metal rods, bricks, and petrol bombs.

Three full days of weaponised language undermining the police service in Northern Ireland coalescing with months of dangerous inflamed rhetoric over the Northern Ireland protocol gave criminal gangs and those with more nefarious motives the political cover they needed.

In reality, this is a dangerous game of political football, where children are being used as fodder. The blame game and political point-scoring will not help these communities or prevent further unrest.

Political fodder

The eruption of riots will also, unquestionably, be used by those in the Republic of Ireland who have grown comfortable with the constitutional status quo. As conversations around the possibility of reunification grow so too does opposition from some parts of the Republic of Ireland.

Those who seek to stifle conversations on constitutional change by portraying Northern Ireland as akin to the 1970s will use what has unfolded this week, much in the same manner as unionists, to further their own selfish aims.

It is wrong to frame this disorder as purely opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, there are complex undercurrents at play here; a lack of opportunities, educational failures, nationalistic propaganda and the influence that paramilitary organisations still hold in these areas.

The Independent Reporting Commission, set up to provide an annual assessment of progress towards the end of paramilitarism estimates 12,500 current members of loyalist paramilitary groups and warned last year that paramilitary groups still pose a “clear and present danger” to Northern Ireland.

Economy and Education

Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement and many of the areas at the forefront of the troubles remain steeped in deprivation. This is where the focus should lie. A serious reworking and reimagining of investment into these communities is urgently required.

So too is a renewed focus on embedding the rights-based provisions of the Good Friday Agreement; integrated education, shared housing, a bill of rights alongside civic engagement structures like the Civic Forum – that was never given a chance. These are complex issues that will require inspired political, societal and economic thinking.

Education remains a wholly under-utilised tool in tackling sectarianism. Earlier this year a survey by Parallel Histories (a charity that aims to find new ways of teaching about recent conflicts) revealed a disparity between which period of history is being taught in Northern secondary schools divided down religious lines.

The survey highlighted that the vast majority of Catholic schools teach the years 1965-1998, covering subjects from the civil rights movement, to the Troubles, and culminating in the Belfast Agreement.

By contrast, just under half of “Protestant” schools – defined by the survey as those “with a Protestant denomination or controlled by the state rather than by the Catholic Church” – teach a history curriculum focused on 1920-1949 instead, sidestepping the decades-long struggle for peace and reconciliation which created the institutions we live under today.

How can we expect our children to grow up free from sectarianism if they’re being taught two different versions of our shared history?

In responding to the escalation of violence, a question should also be raised over the persistent platform offered to those who were complicit in organising this violent and tragic event – providing those who advocate for the dismantling of the Good Friday Agreement and the collapse of political structures a soapbox in mainstream media.

We cannot continue to enable the propagation of views that serve only to push the tones of instability and discontent even higher. Yes, all voices need to be heard, but there can be no legitimacy given to those who seek violence and disruption to achieve their aims.

There is an inherent danger in fanning the flames of anger and discontent, the ramifications of which we are now seeing unfold. We need unionist leaders to tone down the rhetoric and address the concerns of their communities with honesty and understanding.

Political Unionism is in free-fall – finding itself in a minority for the first time and facing the possibility of further losses at the next Assembly election. These are the desperate throes of a political body that hasn’t come to terms with its own shrinking base, and certainly hasn’t adapted to limit further losses.

No one party can claim to speak for an entire community, let alone the entire populace and yet deliberate efforts are made to give the impression that unionism does just this. All parties can claim to speak for no more than their voters which in the case of the DUP is 225,413 out of an electorate of 1.33 million.

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Amid these acts of violence, we cannot lose sight of the progress over the past 23 years. Despite the dysfunction of our political structures, the people of Northern Ireland have fostered for themselves the meaning of true reconciliation.

I look to the NI bus drivers who protested at Belfast City Hall on Thursday as a reminder of the resilience of the people in this region – “Enough is enough, we are not going back to the dark days” were the words of defiance spoken, and they echo across Northern Ireland.

This is not a return to the dark days, violence has not won out, the not-so-silent majority will not be deterred from the path of reconciliation and peace by a violent minority.

There will always be challenges in peacebuilding, it’s how we respond to these challenges that matter.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.  

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Emma DeSouza

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