Summing up 15 years of peace

Summing up 15 years of peace: Launch of the second Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report
by Vanessa VASSALLO for Shared Future News
10 April 2013

The anniversaries of important events are typically moments when people look back and sum up the situation: what has changed since then and what has not, what should change, what to do to see that change happens.

The Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report (published by the Community Relations Council, with the collaboration of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), now in its second edition, was launched during the 15th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

So, is Northern Ireland finally moving towards a shared future, or is it falling back into its history of sectarianism and separation? We are witnessing conflicting signals.

Up until the first week of December, the year 2012 had been one of the most peaceful since 1998, yet with two people were killed by dissident republicans. The handshake between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth seemed to represent the end of decades’ (or maybe centuries’) hatred, but the recent flag dispute in Belfast city centre brought back the ghost of the darkest period of our history.

Paul Nolan, the report’s author, explained the need of such a document with a simple question: “Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, how do we assess the health of the Northern Irish peace process? While we obviously failed to achieve the type of peace we had hoped for, Northern Ireland is on the road towards that ideal.”

But how do we pragmatically measure peace?

The decrease of violence is clearly not enough. Northern Ireland, Dr Nolan reminded, was in fact a peaceful society in 1960s, if measured only by the statistics of violence. Strong social injustices can be waiting under the surface, ready to erupt in an open conflict.

This is why the Peace Monitoring Report focuses on four more comprehensive dimensions: sense of security; equality; political progress; cohesion and sharing.

Dr Corinna Hauswedell, co-editor of the German Peace Report “Friedensgutachten”, was chosen to express an opinion from an international perspective.

The rest of the European media did not pay much attention to the recent riots, she said, apart from wondering if Northern Ireland was on its way back to the Troubles.

Dr Hauswedell also warned the audience on the ambivalence and ambiguity of symbolism: “A ‘simple’ clash of symbols is obviously better than war, but it also carries its risks.”

It is not the first time that the topic of symbolism, and the need of a proper legislation to regulate it, arises. In fact, in Dr Nolan’s findings, the most significant failing of the Northern Ireland Executive has been the impasse on the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document.

Dr Nolan argued that the persisting lack of any agreed policy on flags and parades (not to mention housing, education, or dealing with the past) left Northern Ireland particularly vulnerable to incidents of this sort and unable to achieve a stable, definitive peace.

Furthermore, Dr Nolan added, the Northern Ireland Executive has proved quite inefficient in terms of healing the relations between Catholics-Republicans and Protestants-Loyalists.

The report reveals that the population is less firmly divided on Catholics and Protestants, British and Irish. Northern Ireland is now a more heterogeneous society, more at ease with difference. The number of foreign nationals now living here has risen to 11% of the population. Those with ethnicities other than “white” and religions other than Christian constituted only the 0.8% in 2001: they are now the 1.8%. This is much below the percentage held by UK as a whole (19.5%) or the Republic of Ireland (15.5%), but still quite a change.

Also, residential segregation has diminished. The data shows that only the 37% of the electoral wards are now single identity: it was over the 50% in 2001.

In conclusion, Dr Nolan’s findings show that positive changes have actually happened and are still happening, but that the road towards peace is still long and full of hardships. Much has still to be done.

What is important, according to Dr Hauswedell, is not to let single incidents discourage us.

“In post-conflict situations where nationalism had and still has a prevalent role, nationalist outbreaks must be expected. But your peace process has lasted despite this since 1998, and this really means something,” said Dr Hauswedell.

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