Yesterday’s attack on a British army base in Antrim by the Real IRA will have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics in the six counties or who’s spent even a small amount of time there.
What has always seemed clear is that the peace process in Northern Ireland was cobbled together in state rooms and government ministries. It involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support, hoping that in time the contradiction that lies at the root of the conflict – namely partition – would recede in importance in line with a peace dividend in the form of prosperity and a boom in consumption.
This latest attack, in which two British soldiers have been killed and four injured, comes fast on the heels of the controversy surrounding revelations that the PSNI had requested the help of British special forces in gathering intelligence on dissident republicans, revealing an increase in organisation and activity by people intent on resuming the war. Ultimately, both the news of British special forces being sent to the province, and now this attack, reminds us that the underlying causes of the conflict haven’t gone away. More importantly, it will place enormous pressure on the leadership of Sinn Fein by the British government and unionist parties to cooperate with the security services in apprehending and nullifying the threat posed by any resurgence of physical force republicanism in the province.
The Peace Process was well named given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism. This process went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons.
In July 2007, two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed a government, the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province that began in 1969.
The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont seemed entirely justified. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of loyalist ascendancy in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were reluctant to end the war.
The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardcore in their respective movements, working together in government was proof to many that the war and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning the war, had absolutely and finally come to an end.
But has it?
Passing through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughgall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the war, there’s little sign that the separation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. Marking the entrance to loyalist working class housing estates in every town are an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, lampposts and kerb stones painted red, white, and blue, along with crests of King Billy and various other symbols in deference to loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, meeting places for an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of loyalist and protestant domination. Driving into Loughgall, for example, you pass under a massive arch painted red, white, and blue, over which a large metal crest of protestant King Billy on a white horse looks down imperiously, leaving visitors and residents in no doubt who rules in this part of the world.
As for the security apparatus, whilst there are no longer British Army patrols and armoured cars out on the streets, nor military helicopters flying overhead (especially in South Armagh, where the British Army and security forces were forced to abandon the road to the IRA at the height of the conflict), you still get a feeling that a heightened security apparatus is in place. Police stations in every town are more like armed fortresses, replete with high walls, wire fencing and watchtowers. Atop hills and mountains as you drive around the countryside are listening masts, used by the security and intelligence services for surveillance and which still appear operational.
Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the six counties which the establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over 30 years of war and conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. It is vibrant, affluent, and judging by the sheer number of construction cranes dotting the landscape, booming (at least in the summer of 2007 just before the credit crunch began). An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street is palpable.
But move out to the outskirts, to West, East, North and South Belfast, and you enter a different world. Despite the peace process, these areas remain citadels of sectarianism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in republican areas. The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating republican and loyalist communites, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community is decidedly off limits to members of the other, and the pride which each takes in their martyrs and the war is immediately evident in the elaborate wall murals which abound.
Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict, partition and the contradictions it has wrought, still lies at the heart of society in the six counties. That said, whether any return to militant republicanism will enjoy popular support in republican communities, after 12 years of relative peace, is the key question – one that will largely determine whether or not we see British troops once again patrolling the streets of Belfast.