Northern Ireland 20 Years after the Peace Deal

In this blog Alec Forss argues that continued civil society engagement is critical for sustaining peace in Northern Ireland.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which signalled an end to the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Renouncing armed struggle, all sides pledged to pursue their aims peacefully through political accommodation. The price had been high: over 3500 deaths, tens of thousands injured, while communities were left with deep psychological scars and grievances.

Peace was not established overnight. Despite the wave of relief and elation, some neighborhoods in fact experienced an upsurge in violence following the agreement, with much uncertainty and suspicion regarding the path ahead. Put to a referendum, only half of the Unionist community who voted endorsed the peace deal. Just a few months later, the tragic Omagh bombing – in which 29 people were killed – was a violent demonstration of opposition to the agreement by a small but significant faction of dissident Republicans who called themselves the Real IRA.

Despite numerous setbacks, however, the mechanisms for peace were gradually implemented. Key milestones, among others, included the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons in 2005, and, following years of suspension, the election of a new Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing executive in 2007. A Parades Commission had also been established to rule on contentious parades, while Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the newly reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland marked a breakthrough for the normalisation of law and order.

Civil society bringing down barriers

On the ground civil society peacebuilding has been instrumental in forging cross-community partnerships and initiatives. This work has contributed to managing tensions over fraught interfaces – informal boundaries dividing communities – as well as reducing fear and demonisation of the “other side.” Such efforts for dialogue and joint activities have brought together people from different sectors of society, ranging from ex-paramilitaries and clergy to residents’ associations and ordinary citizens.

Youth activities have been important in deconstructing sectarian identities and providing opportunities for mutual interaction such as through sports clubs and camps. Women’s groups have been empowered to stand up and forge new narratives for their communities. Investments in shared space facilities, such as parks and community hubs, have also created safe places for positive encounters, contributing to gradually bringing down barriers in what remains a highly segregated society.

New challenges ahead

While the 20-year anniversary is a cause for celebration, Northern Ireland faces significant uncertainties ahead. A generational change in leadership of the North’s two largest political parties – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party – led now by Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster, has been overshadowed by the collapse of power-sharing in January 2017, after a decade of joint rule.

Brexit and the future of the border with the Irish Republic – today largely invisible – represents another potentially destabilising issue. Dealing with the legacy of the past remains a thorny issue with hopes for reconciliation elusive, while political visions for the future – a united Ireland versus remaining in the United Kingdom – continue to be as diametrically opposed as ever. A resumption of violent conflict is by no means imminent or likely; but neither should the peace the region has experienced for the last two decades simply be taken for granted.

Role of civil society more important than ever

As Northern Ireland faces an uncertain political future, the role of civil society becomes more important to buffer and embed the peace against potentially destabilizing forces and stakeholders who may seek to exploit the political uncertainty. Indeed, while significantly diminished in size and support, paramilitary groupings and others continue to exist and hold sway over some communities.

Yet community-driven efforts also need proper financing and support. The European Union, through its PEACE programmes, has channeled over 1.5 billion Euros for peacebuilding activities to Northern Ireland. Despite Brexit, the EU has committed to continuing to fund peace efforts. Nevertheless, other sources are less secure. Economic austerity measures imposed by the London government, for example, have seen significant cuts to social services, while the continuing suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is an obstacle to the setting of budgets and priorities.

Civil society initiatives have also faced challenges as a result of insufficient consultation and participation. Top-down imposed strategies, even if well-meaning, have stoked fears and grievances. Announced in 2013 by the Northern Ireland Executive, the Together Building a United Community scheme, sets the target of removing so-called “peace walls” – physical barriers between neighborhoods – by 2023. While laudable, the setting of such artificial deadlines can also be counterproductive without sufficient community buy-in and support.

Building strong, resilient communities

Strengthening civil society participation is not just a question of cross-community initiatives; it is also about investments in the regeneration of deprived neighborhoods to provide adequate employment, education, civic space, and housing, as well as fostering social inclusion. It is thus about building strong, resilient communities. A sense of neglect and lack of empowerment may serve to foment grievances that can be exploited by anti-agreement elements.

Northern Ireland will still be dealing with the legacy of conflict and division twenty years on from now. But hopefully it will have come further in transforming its conflict, led by its youth, born after 1998, who have no direct memory of the dark days of violence. And while current political uncertainties pose difficulties, as one peacebuilder put it to me, “we are building the peace despite the politicians.”