Some 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, troubles are once again making Northern Ireland internationally newsworthy. The return of former senior US State Department official Richard Haass as special envoy charged with mediating fresh intercommunal peace negotiations highlights how Northern Ireland remains fixed on the US foreign policy horizon.
Haass’s return follows on the heels of Hilary Clinton, who visited the region prior to stepping down as US secretary of state.
The reappearance of Northern Ireland on the global stage is largely a result of violence in Belfast. First, loyalists – who demand that the region remains within the UK – rioted after a vote on December 3, 2012 to restrict the Union flag flying above Belfast city hall.
Protests lasted more than 40 days, leading to injuries to over 100 police officers. The subsequent decision to stop a loyalist march from passing through an Irish nationalist district in north Belfast culminated in the most recent violence on July 12 which resulted in injuries to 71 officers.
The protests come at a period when the region’s political institutions are stable. While the Northern Irish conflict was once deemed intractable, resulting in 3,500 deaths, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement led to the major paramilitary groups disbanding and decommissioning weapons.
There are major innovations in equality legislation and the reform of the police. Peace was symbolised in 2007 by those once-bitter enemies – former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, and unionist hardliner Ian Paisley – sharing a joke as the new leaders of the devolved power sharing government.
The flawed peace
What, then, explains the recent riots? To begin, the violence is generated by loyalists. Their wrath is the accumulation of a number of decisions associated with the peace agreement seen as marginalising their British identity in favour of Irish nationalism. For loyalists, the proscription of their symbols represents an Irish nationalist “creeping barrage”: a strategy to denude loyalists of their Britishness, leading to an erosion of loyalist confidence, which would eventually secure Irish unity.
However, the protests come at a time when the march of Irish unification has stalled. A poll in January 2013 showed that only 17% of interviewees desired a united Ireland.
Despite this, the loyalist protests expose flaws within the peace process. The peace process was designed to create “parity of esteem” for the national aspirations of both groups, in the expectation that this would gratify opposing aims. This logic collapses when one group refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the other group’s identities.
Irish nationalists, therefore, view loyalist parades and the flying of the Union Jack from the city hall as evidence of symbols that are exclusive and anti-nationalist. Loyalists, alternatively, see nationalist objections to their flying of the flag as a denial of loyalist rights embedded in the agreement. These symbolic issues represent hot pokers that allow the rival leaders to goad each other and to maintain support within their own communities.
By opposing loyalist symbols, nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin aim to expedite a vicious loyalist backlash, the consequence of which acts to legitimise that party’s claim as protectors of the nationalist community.
Competition for tight resources
The riots reveal a deeper defect inherent to the peace process. The riots epitomise strategies to draw attention to the plight of working-class loyalist districts, which their leaders allege have suffered from under-investment relative to nationalist communities. Through seeking to accommodate the supposed particular needs of nationalists and unionists, the agreement sanctioned fierce intercommunal competition over public resources.
Each side seeks the status of “victims” to maximise their claims for community funding. The state seeks to manage this struggle by allocating resources proportionally to both groups, a dynamic which stimulates a situation where public services – such as health and leisure centres – are duplicated, adding an extra £1.5 billion to state expenditure annually.
Northern Ireland receives an annual subsidy of around £9 billion from the UK government. As austerity policies bite and the pot of money made available to communities shrinks, there is the strong possibility of such resource conflicts escalating.
Staring over the horizon - or into a precipice?
As Haass arrives in Belfast to mediate all-party talks, he will be aware that regional leaders use street politics as a pressure tactic in advance of intercommunal negotiations. Yet, the use of riots as leverage in negotiations and to secure funding reveals that the oft-stated fear that Northern Ireland is staring over a precipice is unfounded.
Northern Ireland’s political leaders have found a way to deploy threats without terminally destabilising the peace process. Thus, one may legitimately query whether Haass has been recalled to Belfast because his presence is necessary, or because the political parties wish to restart a seemingly interminable negotiation process from which they can extract further concessions and remain politically relevant.