Hopelessness, segregation and divisive politics have driven Northern Ireland’s peace generation to violence

As the centenary of the partition of Ireland approaches, the streets of Northern Ireland are facing the ‘worst rioting in years’. Many of those leading the violence, some of whom have now been arrested, have been strikingly young. A significant number were born after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). What has brought this unlikely demographic to the theatre of violence? Sadly, twenty-three years after peace was secured in Northern Ireland, hopelessness, segregation and inadequate leaders are taking the country down a familiar, dark path.

Violent motifs in peacetime

It is important to note that, although Northern Ireland has had 23 years of peacetime, it is not always peaceful. Annual disturbances in the so-called ‘marching season’ have become normalised to such a degree that the cancellation of parades and marches last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to Belfast’s ‘most peaceful summer‘. The worst is usually expected with the burning of bonfires, which is often accompanied by political campaign posters and threatening slogans.

Increasingly, it is young adults and teenagers who have a direct role in maintaining this intimidatory behaviour. The activity of post-GFA terror groups, far from diminishing, has escalated in recent years. Its most tragic culmination came in the murder of journalist, Lyra McKee, in April 2019. The New IRA, a splinter group of the initial 1997 breakaway group, the Real IRA, later admitted responsibility. In a cruel twist of fate, McKee’s gunman also conceived his child on the same week of her killing.

McKee’s murder was evidence of the successful manipulation by post-GFA paramilitary groups of the young in order to perpetuate violence. Though as of yet unconfirmed, today’s riots could very well be showing us a continuation of older paramilitary figures grooming the next generation of terrorists.

Socio-economic stagnation

Northern Ireland has seen very little economic progress since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Political deadlock and infighting have halted economic and social recovery from the decades lost in the Troubles. Prior to the partition of Ireland, the North was a powerhouse compared to what is now the Republic, but it has since fallen far behind the South. Additionally, Northern Ireland struggles to match the economic performance of the other three nations of the United Kingdom, with labour productivity 17% below the UK average (2017).

The economic stagnation is not unlinked to Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis. Shockingly, more lives have now been lost to suicide since the signing of the peace agreement than during the 30 years of the Troubles. The citizens of post-GFA Northern Ireland have been left with a stagnant economy and poor life prospects. Unrest is borne out of this frustration. As far as this is concerned, the buck stops with Northern Ireland’s leaders.

Nevertheless, Westminster has had its role and failed miserably. Northern Ireland is seen as a half-in-half-out entity of the United Kingdom, and Westminster’s reluctance vis-à-vis full inclusion has damaged its relations with Northern Ireland.

Since the GFA, Westminster has provided Northern Ireland with sub-standard Secretaries of State responsible for bridging the gap between London and Belfast. Former Secretary of State, Julian Smith, was seen to take a genuine interest in the issues affecting the communities of Northern Ireland and managed to restore the Northern Irish government after three years of breakdown. Yet, for reasons unclear to both Belfast and Dublin, Smith was quickly shuffled out of his position. At worst this showed wilful indifference from Westminster, at best a worrying level of ignorance.

The statement made by Boris Johnson on the recent violence came five days after the first scenes of confrontation between Loyalists and police officers greeted our newsfeeds. By ignoring continuous nights of disturbance, Johnson sent a clear message to worried citizens in Northern Ireland: he has other priorities. Moreover he chooses not to see some of the root causes of the anger on the streets; inequality, lack of opportunity, and an absence of political leadership.

A segregated society

Maintaining a two-party state in which historically-opposed sides govern together has only entrenched divisions between communities. The political system enshrined in the GFA demands there be a largest Nationalist party and a largest Unionist party to ensure a functioning government. Therefore, people are often forced to vote following national or religious identity, rather than policy.

Until very recently those politicians who emerged from smaller parties, in other words who did not identify as either Nationalist or Unionist, did not have a counted vote on big issues. Political hegemony has only emboldened the extremist factions of the two parties that have monopolised our system: Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Escalations between the two sides can lead to deadlock, such as the recent collapse of Stormont that lasted for almost three years, as noted earlier. Those who refuse the binary imposed on our political system, particularly within the upcoming generation, feel unrepresented by the Northern Irish government and hopeless for the future.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the country’s peace generation has grown up in a religiously-segregated education system. Integrated schools are hoped to make up 10% of schools in Northern Ireland by this year, and remain vastly outnumbered by single-religion schools. Generations grow up separated from ‘other’ communities, which breeds fear and distrust. It ensures that the trenches made in hate and fear remain in a cold stalemate even during peacetime.

In an already segregated society, it is all too easy to blame the ‘other’. In the Loyalist community these scapegoats have been known to range from Nationalist and Republican politicians, to Westminster, to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (who have been accused of ‘two-tier’ policing). Old alliances between Loyalist Northern Ireland and Westminster have been strained following the breakdown in relations between the DUP and the Conservatives due to careless Brexit negotiations.

The recent riots are a worrying sign of the influence that violent forces can still have on post-conflict citizens. An increasing number of those involved in perpetuating terror do not remember or cannot relate to the everyday violence of the Troubles. It is easier for them to be convinced violence is the best way of communicating their anger. They see little or no opportunity in the peaceful Northern Ireland they have been told they are so lucky to live in. The lack of real leadership from both Stormont and Westminster has eroded trust in the establishment, providing fertile ground for the violence now unfolding.

For those who grew up as the peace generation, it is particularly difficult to see young adults and teenagers rioting on the streets. But that does not mean we don’t understand where it has come from. Too many of our fellow citizens have been brought up in a state where they are physically separated from the ‘other’ community via a segregated education system, with little economic reward for the qualifications they gain. Many will be pushed into leaving Northern Ireland if they can afford to do so. This reality has been supercharged with decades of divisive politics and dangerous rhetoric. With little sign of a brighter future, it has become all too easy to believe that there is nothing to lose in unleashing violence.