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Conflict and compromise

14th April 2008

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This month marks the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement, the catalyst behind Belfast's recent economic and social transformation from bomb town to boom town.

At the heart of this conflict were the individuals who took up arms and became members of the dense patchwork of paramilitarism that came to define and dominate what is known as 'The Troubles'.

The National Student met with two former paramilitary prisoners to discuss their reasons for volunteering, what they think of the current peace agreement and to learn how they have traded conflict for compromise.

On August 13, 1969 the simmering religious tensions between the Catholic nationalist and the predominantly Protestant unionist communities exploded, and rioting broke out across the country. Some of the most violent exchanges took place in the interface areas of west Belfast where the communities lived side by side, particularly on the now infamous Falls, a nationalist-dominated area, and the unionist Shankill estate.

Within this climate of fear and hostility individuals on either side of the religious divide joined militant organisations in an attempt to defend their communities from attack - The Troubles had begun.

William Smith, a founding member of the Red Hand Commandos, a group affiliated with the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), spent 5 years in prison for attempted murder. He explains that he became a member because of his upbringing: "Many of us were born into it and when I was 18 in 1969 the Shankill, the street I grew up on, started to fight with the Falls. It was this violence that motivated me to become a founding member of the Red Hand Commandos. We didn't take a decision to join on a particular day; back then we saw ourselves as reacting to the IRA. It seemed the right thing to do at that time."

As the conflict gathered momentum, the ranks of Loyalist and Republican organisations swelled as more and more young men and women from both communities became actively involved in conflict.

Michael Culbert served a 16-year prison sentence from 1978 until 1993 for killing British soldiers.

He highlights that while his nationalist upbringing played a major part in his decision to join, it was the events of Bloody Sunday that proved to be the final catalyst for him becoming an IRA soldier: "I joined the Republican movement in the early months of 1972 when I was 23; a decision driven by a basic sense of Irish nationalism - but the events of Bloody Sunday were some of the main reasons for my membership. We were involved in a war against the British army and the forces that supported them. That is what we did and no apology."

Similarly, William describes how both personal and community tragedy saw many young Loyalists volunteer for active service: "Personal encounters with death stimulated some people to join paramilitaries while others did so because of events like Bloody Friday". Roughly six months after Bloody Sunday on July 21 1972, the IRA planted 22 bombs across Belfast, killing two British Soldiers, seven civilians and seriously injuring 130 others, a day which became known as Bloody Friday.

Within the 28 year period of the troubles 3,289 people were murdered, representing 0.3% of the population, and 40,000 people were injured. There were 35,000 recorded shootings, roughly 15,000 bomb explosions, and it would be utterly impossible to even guess how many bullets were fired - the shocking numerical summaries of a quagmire conflict that destroyed the lives of thousands of people. However, if they are extrapolated to reflect the population of Britain in the same period then over 110,000 people would have been killed and 1.4 million injured, a figure equivalent to half of all the British deaths during the Second World War.

It was within this context that the Agreement was ratified. The culmination of thousands of hours of debate and concession, it contained proposals dealing with a range of complex issues, including the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the early release of paramilitary prisoners, the future of policing and criminal justice, and the relationship Northern Ireland was to have with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. A copy of the Agreement was posted to every household in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and referendums the following May gave substantial support by voting 74% and 94% respectively for ratification. Regardless of its complex success and failures, it has been responsible for the most prolonged period of relative peace since the current manifestation of the Ireland conflict began in 1969.

To date 450 prisoners have been released under the terms of the Agreement and, as with any conflict, the disarmament and reintegration of former prisoners is essential if the conflict is to be effectively resolved. No amnesty for their crimes has been given, a contentious issue even today, and some ex-prisoners have drifted toward criminality. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) estimates that the money made by paramilitary organisations through illegal activity is in the millions.

Despite the problems that have come with reintegration and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, many former political prisoners have crossed the religious gulf to work with their former enemies. Coiste na n-Iarchim, working to reintegrate IRA ex-prisoners, and Epic, a parallel organisation on the Unionist side, are among several schemes that regularly organise cross-community events and work to integrate youths from both sides by focusing on the common ground that unites them. Each organisation receives a range of funding from the European Union and the British or Irish government.

Michael explains that many former prisoners have swapped active conflict for cross-community activism: "There are a lot of groupings involved in the peace-making and building process. Political ex-prisoners tend to be heavily involved in these activities. The main reason why it is political ex-prisoners is that we were in prison because we cared about own communities and we were political activists. We are continuing that role in a new way and try to make sure that no more people lose their lives."

Within this new climate of peace, foreign investment has greatly increased, rising by 300% in the last year and attracting nearly one billion dollars. Unemployment is at an all time low.

Within this storm of change stubborn politicians have been uprooted, army barracks have been dismantled and property prices have been thrown sky high as the country has been transformed from being the owner of the world's most bombed hotel to being the UK's most popular stag weekend destination. However, this storm has been unable to topple Northern Ireland's three divisive pillars; polarisation, distrust and sectarianism.

According to the Sutton Index a further 121 people have been killed since the ratification of the Agreement, and paramilitarism remains a powerful provincial force. Numerous riots and acts of violence have taken place but, in comparative terms, Northern Ireland has improved dramatically. What has superseded the troubles is a mirror of the drug and gang violence that exists within the rest of the UK, though William explains that violence in Northern Ireland will always have a sectarian undertone. "The youth of today," he says, "has a ready-made enemy because of The Troubles, but much of it is a gang culture and is different to the violence of that time."

Like any scar, the troubles - the latest chapter in an 800 year conflict - will never disappear from Northern Ireland, but if left to heal then over time its effects will fade until it becomes a distressing memory rather than a defining characteristic.

Paramilitarism will inevitably play a part in this healing process and its hold within elements of both communities will remain a norm for the foreseeable future. Yet the work of organisations such as Coiste and Epic can at least turn some of this energy into a positive element of a secure peace.

William, a leading figure in the Loyalist attempts to secure peace and ratify the Agreement, is cautiously optimistic about the future: "We have a good opportunity to become one of the best countries in Europe but the government must not leave the working class people from these communities behind in the ghettos. Belfast has the opportunity to be great but only if everyone shares in the prosperity, otherwise it is difficult to say what might happen."

Michael too is aware of the great potential for hope to turn to division and vice versa: "I feel strongly that the peace is stable, though it is not satisfactory from a Republican perspective."

"Much depends on Unionists and Republicans working together and that is best for Northern Ireland. I firmly advocate supporting the peace process, you have to try the best option and make it work and that is people not dying."

by Franck Martin

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