Northern Ireland: Yet Again

I am back in Northern Ireland for a visit to our Head Office. This is something that I do quite often, in fact whenever I am back in the UK for a few days.

I must admit I love the place. The empty roads and the beautiful countryside, all green and elegant, I have never seen a more beautiful place than this. I remember coming here with a colleague fresh from India, who was literally scared because we did not see a soul as we drove for miles. Even as we passed through town centres, there was no one to be seen, even on a workday afternoon. That was scary for him, the contrast with Hyderabad could not be more obvious.

Conversely, when someone travelling from NI asked me what India would be like, I had to tell her that they may see a lot many more people, all the time. The population of the whole of Northern Ireland is just 1.5 million, and contrast that with Hyderabad’s almost 6 million, and my conclusions seem obvious.

However, this time, I am coming here at a very uncertain time. On Saturday, two soldiers in the British Army Barrack near the airport in Belfast were shot dead. Monday night, a policeman was called out by a 999 call and killed by sniper fire. A group, which calls itself the Real IRA, and opposes the peace process between the republicans and the unionists, has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

The logic of such action is undecipherable. The peace process appears to be going well, with a power sharing deal in place in Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly. The firebrand republican leaders of the past, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, seem to be making progress with their unionist counterparts, Reverend Ian Paisley and the First Minister Peter Robinson. It almost seems that Northern Ireland will now be able to move forward beyond its history of violence and become a permanently peaceful place.

For the Northern Irish economy, this is also a terrible time. The economy recovered significantly over last decade on the back of the peace process. Jobs peaked and so did construction and investments. Many islanders, who left the country to pursue careers and business elsewhere, returned, starting off new business enterprises and injecting a new dynamism in the economy. New investments came in from all over the world – I was pleasantly surprised to see an HCL [yes, the Indian HCL] Call Centre in Armagh – and the economy was operating in full employment, bringing prosperity to most people.

However, the downturn has already stolen all the benefits of the last decade. The construction trade has been decimated in the last 12 months. House prices have fallen by almost 30%, and the houses are not just getting sold anymore. The flow of credit has come to a complete halt, as the Northern Irish banks are struggling to keep themselves afloat. Employment has taken the hit and the emigration has started again. The hard earned reputation as a tourist and investment destination is hanging on the balance and the mood on the street is apprehensive and unsure.

This is a terrible time to start the violence, all over again. The common theory is that this must be a very small section of the society, may be even a lone sniper. But a series of incidents like this will bring the memories flooding back. Besides, one can reasonably suspect how sincere the parties in the peace process really are: It often looked to me that Reverend Paisley is only reluctantly making a compromise. It will not take them long to backtrack and go back to paramilitary days. This is indeed what the men behind masks want – go back to past. But what makes them do it?

It is indeed an interesting question. For actions like this, private madness can be ruled out. Soldiers and Police were attacked and no one has been arrested yet. In both cases, an ambush was set up. So, there was a plan and a cover, almost impossible for a private individual to arrange. Small section of the society is still a section, and therefore, it must be driven by a common agenda. The problem is that it is hard to define such a common agenda, at least in the conventional terms.

The stated claim of Real IRA is that they want British troops out of Irish soil. But, the British troops are already out – they are not on the street anymore. The garrison they attacked mainly consist of Engineers. In fact, the way to keep British troops out is to give up violence, not to resume it.

Besides, wall writings have appeared in Northern Ireland against the ‘Sell out’, an apparent reference to Peace Process. However, Sinn Fein is very much an equal partner in the government and centuries long process of discrimination against the Catholics has been effectively reversed in the last decade. The Irish government is as much a part of the peace process as anyone else, and even the American benefactors of the IRA have now concluded that it is too dangerous to support any terror organization, whatever the cause, these days.

However, there is another way to look at this unrest. I am afraid this is the pessimist angle, but I have seen this playing out in other post-conflict societies. Governments, in the post-conflict phase, usually create a benefactor class – across the traditional divide – by bestowing them social advantages and economic facilities. This leads to a split deeper inside the society. This is more a privileged/ less privileged divide than the catholic/protestant divide. I would suspect this is exactly what is happening in Northern Ireland. In fact, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, alluded to this [without meaning it, of course]. He said – the political class will win. Read privileged for political class in Northern Ireland, and you will get the picture.

Expectedly, this is happening as the prosperity vanishes and economic realities bite, as the unemployed are out on the street again. The unrest, now small, can quickly spread, as the middle classes, out of their mortgage dreams and struggling to pay their Credit Card bills, join the aggrieved. In such a situation, the strategies, carefully constructed to handle the traditional divide, will fail to contain grievances and combat unrest.

In Northern Ireland, most of the prosperity is based on a false economy. 51% of the workforce works for the government. The businesses get large handouts and support packages through government agencies. Most of the economic life of Northern Ireland revolves around government grants and subsidies, almost like a socialist country. It is easy to see if you are not connected here, you will lose out, and hence, why the less privileged can nurse a deep sense of resentment against the ‘political class’. Besides, this is the time when the resources of the government are fast sinking and increasingly, the circle of privilege is becoming smaller.

At times like this, the situation can spin out of control fairly quickly. I think the British government is in denial, as always – they are blaming a small section of the society and keeping their eyes closed. Such denial and a lack of strategy, and therefore, an inability to adjust to the reality of new divide, is common among governments facing such post-conflict violence. The British government has never won any prizes on imaginativeness, but at this time, a failure to imagine can turn out to be catastrophic for Northern Ireland.


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