BELFAST — So far, 2015 has hardly been a vintage summer in Northern Ireland — and not just on account of the unseasonably cold weather. In recent weeks this small corner of the United Kingdom has witnessed clashes between police and pro-union marching bands, and ongoing attacks against security forces by Irish republicans opposed to the peace process. Now the murder of a former IRA man, ostensibly by his onetime comrades, threatens to collapse Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.
Northern Irish police have said that they believe members of the Provisional IRA were responsible for the killing of Kevin McGuigan in East Belfast earlier this month. The IRA was supposed to have “left the stage” 10 years ago when its weapons arsenal was decommissioned.
Northern Irish First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson says Sinn Féin, the political voice of Irish republicanism, must be excluded from the power-sharing government at Stormont if IRA involvement in the murder is proven. On August 26, the smaller Ulster Unionist party announced that they would be resigning from the Executive.
British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been more circumspect, commenting that the continuing existence of the IRA “didn’t come as much of a surprise,” but that there was no evidence that the organization was involved in paramilitary activity.
The current crisis is the latest in a long line of disputes between Irish nationalists and pro-U.K. unionists in the devolved government that was set-up in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That deal brought an end to the 30-year-long “Troubles” that cost more than 3,000 lives.
The once quotidian violence is gone, but this remains a deeply divided society. Belfast is among the most segregated cities in the world. Across the city, rival union flags and Irish tricolors denote separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.
“People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other” — Alex Kane, unionist political commentator
The state of play in government is little different.
Even before the McGuigan killing — believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the murder of another former IRA member in Belfast earlier this summer — nationalists and unionists were at loggerheads over proposed welfare cuts for the population of just under two million mandated by the British government in Westminster.
Sinn Fein says reductions in welfare payments would hurt the most vulnerable. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists, warn that failure to do a deal would leave a £600 million (€825 million) hole in the Belfast Parliament’s budget. Northern Ireland receives an annual subvention of around £12 billion (€16.5 billion) from the U.K. Exchequer.
Earlier this summer, First Minister Robinson insisted that if no deal is struck on spending cuts he would ask the secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move would probably lead to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration — if it has not been toppled already by the aftershock of the McGuigan killing.
And yet, Belfast does not feel like a city that could soon be without a government.
Tourists throng the streets, despite the summer showers. The colorful rainbow flags festooned outside bars and clubs ahead of the recent gay pride festival attest to changing attitudes in the once puritan Northern Irish capital.
“I walk around this town and people aren’t saying to me ‘the union is in danger.’ Nobody. People are more interested in jobs and health,” says Alex Kane, a unionist political commentator based in Belfast.
“But there is a general sense of despondency with the assembly. People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other.”
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This July marked the 10th anniversary of arguably the most important step in Northern Ireland’s road to peace — the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s huge stockpile of weapons. The republicans’ long campaign, which cost more than 1,800 lives, was supposedly over.
The cessation of widespread violence has not, however, meant the end of hostilities between nationalists and unionists. In Northern Ireland, von Clausewitz’s famous maxim is turned on its head: here, politics is war by other means. Clashes over putatively minor issues such as the Irish language provision and the routes for pro-union Orange Order parades are common.
“The Good Friday Agreement managed the end of the conflict. It didn’t give us a blueprint for normal politics,” says Jonny Byrne, lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. The past remains deeply contested by all sides. Politicians “have never resolved the fundamentals of the conflict,” says Byrne.
Northern Irish politics is characterized by “an inability to accept losses and gains through normal political mechanics.” Instead politicians of all stripes blame the British or Irish governments for failing to provide resources or solutions to local problems.
The drive for consensus in the peace process also begot a system prone to cronyism. Police are investigating claims that a Belfast law firm held £7 million (€9.6 million) in an offshore bank account for a local politician in a major property sale.
“The question is: When should you complain after 20 years that an absence of violence is not enough?” asks Byrne. “We should want more. We should aspire for more. This is not what we should settle for.”
“Paramilitaries are still active in the community” — Phil Hamilton, community worker
Northern Irish politics is still dominated by many of the same actors that trod the boards during the Troubles. Peter Robinson was elected DUP deputy leader in 1980. Five U.K. prime ministers have held office since Gerry Adams became Sinn Féin president.
“It feels like Cuba,” says Byrne. “Where is the opportunity for new thinking?”
While old stagers dominate party politics, on the street tensions have ratcheted up.
Alongside the union flags, paramilitary standards flutter in the breeze in many loyalist parts of Belfast. Illegal outfits such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have been accused of recruiting new members. Earlier this summer a new loyalist terror group announced its presence.
On the other side of the sectarian divide, republican paramilitaries provided a “guard of honor” at a recent funeral in Derry. Claims of IRA involvement in the McGuigan killing have focused attention on the continuing existence of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. “Paramilitaries are still active in the community,” says Phil Hamilton, a community worker in Rathcoole, a huge Belfast housing estate where loyalist gunmen still look down menacingly from gable end murals.
“A return to the conflict isn’t on the radar but other people are filling the political vacuum,” says John Loughran, a Sinn Féin member who works with former prisoners from both sides of the conflict in North Belfast. The area is among the most economically deprived in the whole of the U.K.
Gridlock in Stormont is fuelling a wider sense of disillusionment with politics. In May’s general election, Northern Ireland registered the lowest turnout in the U.K.
“The good and proper institutions built into the Belfast Agreement are increasingly the very structures that are disenchanting the electorate,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council. “This dissatisfaction is deep. We are tired of crisis.”
I meet Hamilton in a bright, airy shopping arcade in Belfast city center. The building was opened by then British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew in 1992, an early sign of growing confidence that peace was finally coming to restive Northern Ireland.
More than 20 years later there is no sign of a return to the violence of the past. But even if Stormont survives the latest emergency, executive paralysis is eroding faith in the political process, warns Hamilton.
“If democracy cannot deliver stable government, given our history that’s not a good place to be.”
This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.