Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland: The Current State of Play

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland: The Current State of Play

Article excerpt

Introduction: Peace Dividend?

The IRA and loyalist military groups declared ceasefires in 1994. Three and a half years later, the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement was signed by all political parties, leading eventually, and after a number of major setbacks, to the establishment of a devolved, power-sharing Assembly and Executive.

To begin with, it is worth reminding ourselves how far Northern Ireland has travelled in terms of peace and potential conflict transformation during this period.

Take the military situation first. By August 2007 British army strength was down to 5000, one-sixth what it had been at the height of the conflict. In addition, the three Northern Ireland based regiments of the Royal Irish Regiment, totalling 3000, full-time and part-time, have been disbanded. The police complement has been reduced to 7,500, from 11,392 in 1999, with an additional 2,500 civilian staff.

The decommissioning of weapons of the various insurgent groups was a particularly protracted issue, but eventually the IRA decommissioned all its weapons in August 2005, followed by the UVF in 2009 and the UDA in 2010. (1)

In July 2000, the remaining politically motivated prisoners were released early under terms of the Belfast Agreement. No amnesty was involved; they were released on licence. That means that they continue to have prison records. As a result, there is clearly an element of 'residual criminalisation', whereby politically motivated ex-prisoners experience obstacles in relation to employment, criminal injuries, adoption rights, visas for some foreign travel, etc. (2)

The Belfast Agreement led to the setting up of an Independent Commission on Policing under Chris Patten. (3) The Commission produced a radical report with almost 200 recommendations. However, it fell short in some respects, for example, in terms of curtailing the toxic independence of the Special Branch. Also, the government in effect gutted the report to assuage fears of unionists and the police themselves. At the same time, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) was replaced by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). In addition, there was a reduction in numbers as well as a form of recruitment which required a 50/50 balance of Catholic and Protestant recruits. This was ended in March 2011, by which time the PSNI was said to be 28 percent Catholic, compared to approximately 8 percent in the final days of the RUC. (4)

Finally, as regards victims, the 1998 government appointed Bloomfield Report urged recognition of and compensation for victims of the conflict and established a memorial fund where payments could be made to the physically injured and bursaries were available, for example, for the education of their children. (5) A further step was the appointment of four Victims' Commissioners amid controversy in 2008. Currently there is one Victims' Commissioner. She relates to numerous victims' groups which offer support, counselling, self-help, and campaigning, etc. There is also a Victim's Forum whose role is to advise the Commissioner and the Executive. Many of these initiatives are at least partly funded by the Victims' and Survivors' Service. One of the main points of contention in this sector relates to who constitutes a victim. For some loyalist and unionist groups in particular, there is firm opposition to having that title conferred, for example, on an IRA person shot dead by the British army.

Dealing with the past: an inventory

Like other societies coming out of a period of protracted violent political conflict, Northern Ireland is faced with the legacy of the conflict. The question that arises is how it has attempted to come to terms with that legacy, what policies have been derived for dealing with the past. A number of mechanisms will now be examined.

1. Inquiries

There have been a number of official public inquiries, the most famous of which has been the Bloody Sunday/Saville Inquiry into the killing of 14 Civil Rights marchers by British paratroopers in Derry in 1972. …

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