Northern Ireland is a small region within a rich nation-state, but the strength of the economic union has now become a source of instability. The threat is that the Northern Irish business community has not seen a consistent “reduction of uncertainty”, as it depends on the prospect of stability.
The Northern Ireland Executive economic strategy and the latest economic commentary by the department fails to convince the public that there is a path for sustainable growth and prosperity for 2012 and beyond. Instead, the strategy focuses on a path of “Rebalancing and Rebuilding” to improve the economic competitiveness of the Northern Ireland economy. The strategy lacks any detail, progress and is not an economic path at all.
Political party and ethnic bloc rivalries still dominate the political agenda, at the expense of a sense of collective responsibility to the interests of the Northern Irish people. The parallel trajectories of the DUP and Sinn Fein have left them defined less by their constitutional preferences, and more by their political messaging and socio-ethnic influence, publicly opposing new violence. The provisions of the Belfast Agreement must be overtaken by a more open and accommodating political structure.
This structure requires institutions of government to effectively deliver the range of public policy outcomes desired by the great majority of the people, irrespective of background or affinitive ideology. The coalition of nationalists and unionists to rule together (as First and Deputy First Minister) still negates any effective political opposition or oversight. Northern Ireland politics needs stronger governance and leadership to promote a comprehensive response to the critical challenges ahead.
Key counter-terrorist capabilities should be maintained, along with enhancement of counter-terrorist capabilities in areas with significant intelligence collection gaps. A counter-dissident Republican strategy ought to take into account the constantly changing social and political circumstances within its community and criminal policing, specifically within Republicanism. Success should not be measured in terms of arrests, but prosecutions in the courts (only 21% for Northern Ireland).
There has been little social reintegration and reconciliation for members of paramilitary organizations transitioning to normal society in Northern Ireland, especially across the sectarian divide. Successful prosecution does not eliminate risk, as terrorists can continue to pose a threat after their release. A lack of social projects and education has simply let a number of ex-combatants relapse and join dissident groups, adding experienced operatives. Improved education and societal reintegration of former paramilitaries is required before the next generation is recruited by the very same disenfranchised ex-combatant paramilitaries.
The final social issue is the mutually exclusive British-Irish nationalisms and identities based upon Northern-Irishness that remains un-reconciled. The population needs an acceptable narrative and structure. The Belfast Agreement only served to reduce this competitiveness. The Northern Ireland problem was a trinity that harboured entrenched socio-ethnic communal divisions, was home to a protracted low-intensity conflict, and was characterized by the repeated failure of local politicians to reach agreement on sharing power.
Fourteen years after the Belfast Agreement and subsequent framework, the more socio-ethnic dispute is unresolved; Northern Ireland remains a divided society. Two exclusive sets of nationalists are still looked in competition, destined by history to live side by side on the same land. The aims of many nationalists who took up arms originally to bring about a united Ireland have not been realized, any more than the aims of earlier generations in the late 19 and early 20 centuries were fully achieved. Northern Ireland polities needs to continue its reform, balance, and structure to enable a secure and stable framework for peace.
The Troubles have left behind a terrible legacy fashioned by long years of emotion, suffering, fatigue and hate, of dead and wounded, with trauma that will take generations to heal. The social line of development within the framework for peace is still far from stable and secure.
Uniting Ireland may no longer be a public priority, but Republican extremists may wish to return it to the public arena as part of their strategy. Instead, their use of violence continues through dissidents who view the Provisional IRA as engaging “in a collective act of gross betrayal” mirroring the history of the Irish Republican Army.
Economics, as a line of development, did not prove a major hurdle in the way of a peace agreement, but it will arguably be a destabilizing force in the framework for the future. From an economic perspective, the framework for peace is not stable and secure. Northern Ireland is unlikely to ever know perfect peace.
Adapted from The Northern Ireland Framework for Peace: Terrorism and its Aftermath (2013) courtesy of the Directorate for Information Operations and Reports. Photograph by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916. Published under a Creative Commons license.