Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Attacks in Northern Ireland feeding on a lack of identity

It's just sad, sad, sad...which ever way you look at it.

Having lived in Northern Ireland for a few months a couple of years ago I was taken aback by the new political peace process. I couldn't stop watching the television news with fierce Protestant leader Ian Paisley doggedly standing side by side with Sinn Fein and former IRA men Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. It wasn't comfortable but it was workable and most people you talked to in Northern Ireland desperately wanted it to work.

Tourism was booming. People were coming to see the beauty of the landscape as well as the scarred reminders of the past.

But there was always this undercurrent underpinning the optimism. It was in the walking tour of Belfast I undertook with an ex IRA soldier, or in the small village pub decorated with British flags. These people are moving on as best they can but it doesn't mean resentments have died. The division and lack of trust in each other remains as does the brutal facts of the province's bloody history.

So this week's latest tragedy was the bubble that threatened to pop at any time but it can not be allowed to derail the process. The killing of two British soldiers can not be over-reacted too - troop levels must be contained because it was the troops arrival in Northern Ireland all those years ago that sparked the biggest IRA draft in history and it will again.

I do find it incredibly sad that the same army base I saw in Antrim, tranquil and without the massive armed presence of the past, has been chosen by the Real IRA to shatter the peace. The base was more than a British army base, it was a symbol of how far the people had come. That soldiers were walking out the gate to get pizza without an armed presence spoke volumes for where the process was at. This would not have even been considered as soldiers hunkered down each night, fearful in their bases, at the height of the troubles.

This then, and the luring and killing of a policeman by the Continuity IRA is in danger of becoming a flash point. Protestant guerrilla groups will be wanting to react and the people will bring out those old divisions that never lay forgotten.

You only have to read comments on discussion boards on the Internet to know that there is a new young breed of disenchanted youth in Northern Ireland who are carrying burning hatreds. Sometimes it makes you shiver to read their opinions of each other, and you realise how fragile the entire process is.

But the real problem is this - the people of Northern Ireland don't have an identity. They are still drawn across the old battle lines. The friends I made told me quickly and clearly that they were either British or Irish. No-one said they were of Northern Ireland descent. And it makes me afraid that they can't proudly identify with being of one origin as we can as New Zealanders.

There has to be an overriding identity if they are ever to escape the divisions of the past and if they are to shut down these terrorist splinter groups.

Otherwise there will be a new generation filled with their parents' hatreds and it will begin all over again.
Here is a fascinating post on Anderson Cooper's CNN blog written by an anonymous former British intelligence officer who got inside the IRA:
"It is sad that over the past few days we have had terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland that have claimed the lives of two young, unarmed soldiers, injuring another two and injuring two pizza delivery men. Then today we hear the news that a police officer has lost his life in another terrorist attack in Armagh County.
I have watched as some “security experts” have commented on TV, and given their opinions, some of which I can only describe as utter BS.
As a person who has had inside knowledge of a terrorist organization and the thinking of some of the people involved in some of Northern Ireland’s most horrific acts, I think there is much more to come.
Indeed for the past few years I have been telling journalists what I believed what was happening behind the scenes. The answer from the honest journalists was “editors won’t print stories about Northern Ireland, as it might damage the peace process.”
Well, while they were sleeping, and the government was dismantling the security apparatus put in place to please Sinn Feinn and to give them a foothold, others in the Republican family were gathering intelligence, buying guns, recruiting new volunteers, and doing dry runs.
We have heard Sinn Feinn and others condemning these “micro groups,” saying that they have no support in the community, and “these are the same sound bites” that the provisional IRA had been hearing for over twenty years.
They did not listen, what makes you think that republican groups will listen now? And another thing, the Provisional IRA — the mainstream governing successor to the original IRA — didn’t have that much support in the community either.
People like Willie Frazer, who founded Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (FAIR) to represent victims of IRA violence, and some politicians have voiced concern over the years that Government was acting two fast and prematurely in dismantling the security apparatus.
Yes, there were problems with the UDR (the Northern Ireland police) and others. But there is nothing in place now. The Chief Constable is the chief of a police force, yet he now finds himself in a war against a small army of fanatics, ordinary policing will not work on its own.
Let’s wake up and smell the coffee."

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