#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 10°C Monday 25 October 2021

Column: Will our new cordial partnership with Britain trickle down to NI's day-to-day politics?

The flags and parades-related violence undermine the relatively widespread perception that Northern Ireland’s peace process is a ‘completed’ one.

Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana

THE DECADE OF COMMEMORATIONS is marked by an interest in grand gestures that strive to symbolise the long distance travelled in Anglo-Irish relations. The level of relations today between the British and Irish governments, Stormont and Dublin, as well as between Irish republicans and the British government are indeed unprecedented. The 2011 royal visit to Ireland, the 2012 handshake between Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness, as well as President Higgins’s 2014 state visit, are all cited as examples of an extremely cordial partnership.

Whether the impact of these interactions at the topmost levels of high politics trickles down to the thornier area of Northern Ireland’s day-to-day politics remains an open question.

The US-facilitated process of dialogue to assist Northern Ireland’s political parties in addressing contentious issues related to flags, parades and dealing with the past ended in December 2013 with the parties failing to reach agreement. The issues of flags, parades and the past collectively carry substantial historical baggage that could be traced at least to the years of contention that preceded the Partition of Ireland (and indeed much earlier), and are highly unlikely to be resolved through a relatively short process of dialogue. The Haass talks were no magic wand to align conflicting positions on the hoisting of flags, organising parades and dealing with the province’s violent past. Out of these three issues, the latter has caused much political unrest, and is near-unarguably the most contentious.

‘A beacon to the rest of the world’

Political concerns and ties of kinships put aside, the US authorities’ interest in Northern Ireland’s flags and parades-related political crisis of the 2012-2013 quarter considerably stemmed from the perception that the Northern Ireland peace process is, to quote a US diplomat, a beacon to the rest of the world.

The USA takes pride in its involvement in the process of political transformation in Northern Ireland under President Clinton, which continued under the Bush Jr administration. This celebration of the successes of peacemaking in Northern Ireland is intertwined with the relatively widespread perception that the Northern Ireland peace process is a ‘completed’ one, or a successfully achieved venture. This has led to significant cuts in funding for community relations and reconciliation-related mechanisms. The flags and parades-related violence and the substantive political contentions on dealing with the past have served to considerably undermine this positive perception.

The spectre of the past 

At the local level, a period of teeming political activity with imminent elections has made it more challenging to address the issue of dealing with the past. Whereas Sinn Féin agreed to formally back the Haass proposals, the Unionist polity has been less enthusiastic about an investigative mechanism on atrocities committed by Loyalist armed groups, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British armed forces. The Independent described this Unionist intransigence as “Unionist cowardice”. Interpretations of this nature are somewhat inadequate in understanding the Unionist problems with the Haass proposals.

Reinforcing territory? Persistent problems within Unionism

Unionism on the island of Ireland has continuously been a political ideology with its marked ‘peripheries’. Its ‘inner’ periphery lies in the province of Northern Ireland – the six Unionist-majority counties of Ulster, where Unionist positions occupy centre-stage and majoritarian undertones. From the inception of Northern Ireland to the bridge-building efforts initiated by Prime Minister Capt Terence O’Neill (1963-1969), Unionist rule functioned in a way not unidentical to majoritarian polities in deeply divided societies elsewhere. That ‘Orange State’ proved to be unsustainable, as many other majoritarian polities.

Unionism’s ‘outer’ periphery primarily involves the oftentimes not-so-straightforward relationship between Ulster Unionism and the British government, the centrepoint of its political allegiance. O’Neill’s political strategy was aimed at enhancing the Unionist Party’s electoral appeal by enfeebling the Northern Ireland Labour Party (‘stealing Labour’s thunder’, as O’Neill himself famously described), and in strengthening the British government’s stronghold over the province through large-scale infrastructure projects funded by the British Exchequer. These were complemented by efforts to reach out to the Catholic/nationalist community, in an effort to encourage them to shift towards an increasingly ‘British’ identity.

In his efforts to alter the majoritarian practises of his predecessors, O’Neill was faced with substantive political challenges. O’Neill’s dilemma could be considerably ascribed to the difficulties of reconciling the conflicting peripheries of unionism. Contrary to the expectations of the Northern Irish Unionists, the British government of the day was keen to encourage Stormont to develop ties with Dublin. O’Neill’s reform project did not come to being in a vacuum, and pressure from London to alter the Unionist government’s functional dynamics played a considerable role in bringing it to being.

O’Neillism was a far cry from an initiative aimed at positively bridging Orange-Green antagonism. O’Neill’s reformist, bridge-building and assimilationist policies were not only ill-equipped to constructively deal with Unionist-Nationalist divisive issues, but also caused unrest within the Unionist polity and the broader Unionist community. A programme aimed at increased socio-political cohesion resulted in intra-and intergroup division, bringing Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill.


O’Neill’s was a saga of paradoxes strong enough to put Unionist politicians on guard on ‘bridge-building’ across the sectarian divide. To his most ardent Unionist opponents, O’Neill’s failure was also proof of the political capital to be reaped from a strong adherence to a hard-line Unionist political ideology. Today, what we see is a generation of Unionist leaders (from across the political divisions within Unionism) who promptly acknowledge the reality that their political standing largely rests upon their commitment to what could be ‘marketed’ to the electorate as unequivocally ‘Unionist’ positions.

This strong advocacy of Unionist interests was among the key factors that enabled the DUP to emerge as the foremost Unionist political party in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. Despite the substantive advancements made in the peace process, power-sharing and devolution of powers to Stormont, Unionist leaders are ever so conscious of the political costs of upholding the ‘peace process’ and ‘reconciliation’ above what can be considered as vested Unionists’ interests.

The looming past: the trickiest of issues? 

Ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain maintains that inquiries into the pre-1998 atrocities (by either side of the divide) should no longer be a priority. The British government, which was not unreceptive of this view in the run-up to the Belfast Agreement, has come to terms with the short-and long-term risks of avoiding the question of the past. Human rights activists also oppose Hain’s view. As Amnesty International observes, a durable peace cannot be built upon a rocky foundation of injustice.

In hindsight, one could also affirm with relative certitude that the inconclusive termination of the Haass initiative left the British government relieved. The Haass proposals included a costly investigative mechanism to deal with the past, which runs against the grain of the Cameron government’s reiterated positions on Northern Ireland. Since his election to premiership in 2010, David Cameron has unequivocally called for a reduction of Northern Ireland’s public expenditure (one of the largest in Western Europe), highlighting that time has come to cease treating the province as a troubled space with special needs.

The Cameron government has also clearly expressed its aversion to long-winded and costly public inquiries into past atrocities. In sum, its reactions to the present-day problems in Northern Ireland, especially with regards to the past, are best described as ambivalent. Whereas it desires cuts in public financing, it also calls for – according to Ms Villiers – a mechanism to investigate the past focusing on Loyalist paramilitaries and Irish republicans. What is made absolutely clear is London’s unsurprising aversion to a mechanism that seriously examines atrocities committed by British security forces. This, if anything, is an approach that risks causing further cleavages in the province’s local polity.

On-the-runs and letters of assurance 

The Unionist political leadership was presented with a unique opportunity of voicing its concerns on the past through the case of John Downey, the mastermind of the July 20, 1982 Hyde Park bomb attack, whose trial collapsed in February 2014, on the basis of assurances provided in a letter issued by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2007 that Downey will not be subject to prosecution in the UK.

In what conflict resolution experts (and segments within the British government) may describe as a confidence-building measure, some 187 ‘on the runs’ – IRA fugitives wanted for Troubles-related atrocities – were sent letters that they may not risk prosecution. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds calls the measure a ‘dirty deal’ between the British government and Sinn Féin, and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was reported stating that the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has only been interested in prosecuting loyalists.

In retrospect, the issue of Downey’s trial can be considered as part and parcel of the compromises that were warranted sustain the peace process. It was an essentially behind-the-scenes agreement, kept away from Unionist politicians, who have reiterated that vital facts about the letters of pardon to the ‘on-the-runs’ were withheld from them. The influence of this issue was apparent in Prime Minister Cameron’s decision to order judicial review into the letters on 27 February 2014, in response to First Minister Peter Robinson’s ultimatum to resign if no action was taken on the letters.

Although Robinson subsequently withdrew his resignation threat and accepted the Prime Minister’s move, Cameron has been cautious to highlight his reluctance to ‘undo’ the difficult decisions the previous government was forced to take in prioritising the Northern Ireland peace process. Irrespective of the outcome of the commission of inquiry headed by Lady Justice Hallett (which is due to report in May 2014), the complexity of the issue of dealing with the past will continue to remain one of the foremost (if not the foremost) challenges in Northern Ireland.

London’s priority in addressing Northern Ireland’s troubled past revolves around protecting the British government’s interests. Whatever measures proposed are unlikely to have the families and loved ones of victims (of either side of the sectarian divide) as their primary focus.

Persistent challenges and a peace process re-inventing itself? 

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the assumption that the Northern Ireland peace process is an ‘accomplished’ venture is deeply erroneous. Instead, a peace effort such as that of Northern Ireland is best conceptualised as a long-term process of political, economic and social transformation, prone to face renewed challenges, in facing which the peace processes needs to be reinvented, reviewed, and reinforced. Ongoing debates on austerity, disagreements over new projects (such as the aborted ‘Maze peace centre’ concept), divisive debates on welfare reform and the past are all manifestations of such continued challenges.

The British and Irish governments are keen to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process through newsworthy developments in high politics. Such gestures, despite their significance, conceal the reality of a very difficult set of political concerns. The high mediatisation of diplomatic grand gestures risks deviating attention away from the real issues at interplay.

It was only in January 2014 that the PSNI appealed to over 1,000 witnesses to give evidence on the Bloody Sunday massacre of 30 January 1972. After a 12-year-long costly inquiry, the police are still seeking statements, and as of 20 February 2014, only twenty people had provided statements, prompting PSNI to renew the appeal for witnesses. A question worth raising is whether the millions of pounds spent on the inquiry served those seeking justice for their loved ones, and whether it was a worthwhile investment.

Despite the colossal price of the investigation, it is thoroughly unsure as to whether the British government would allow military personnel (especially the retired, who were directly involved in the Bloody Sunday incident) to be prosecuted for acts committed under emergency laws.

Reconciliation in Northern Ireland is indeed at an early stage and the likelihood of stalemates in efforts at accommodating competing demands on the past remains at an all-time high. Apart from providing space for a continued political dialogue, it is a timely necessity to focus on and prioritise the bitter and oftentimes less newsworthy problems in Northern Ireland’s political scene, rather than grand gestures in high politics.

Chaminda Weerawardhana is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, where he completed his PhD in Comparative Politics. In 2013, he held a European Commission-funded Marie Curie early career fellowship at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. An alumnus of Université François Rabelais in Tours (France), Dr Weerawardhana has worked in Northern Ireland’s community relations sector and has interned for the United Nations. He also serves as a Visiting Lecturer at Université Lille 1.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

About the author:

Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel