Monday, April 4, 2011

Post Conflict Violence in Northern Ireland

Shortly after I departed Northern Ireland, this past Saturday, a new page was being written in the story of post-conflict violence. That afternoon, in Omagh, a 25 year old recent recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), was killed by a bomb booby trapped to explode when he used his car to commute to his post as a police officer (read the Guardian coverage here). To speak of post-conflict violence sounds contradictory, but it is not. The conflict is over because the major organized forces that pursued it for three decades have laid down their arms and now participate quite cooperatively in a set of political institutions negotiated to end the conflict. The lethal attacks and threats that continue to be carried out show that the conflict is not over for everyone, but those acts take place against a background of agreement that conditions their logic. Thus while no group has claimed credit for the latest Omagh bomb, it is widely assumed that the operators were part of the rejectionist wing of the Republican/Catholic side, which insists that the armed struggle to reunite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic must continue. The fact that they targeted a Catholic police officer, in an effort interpreted by others as one aimed at preventing the PSNI from achieving the integrated force composition that is a key part of its own post-conflict make-over into a reflection of the peace and to differentiate themselves from the much criticized Royal Ulster Constabulary which was widely viewed as siding with Protestant militants during the troubles. Both the PSNI and the rejectionist Republicans are pursuing what can fairly be called post-conflict strategies.

The rejectionist Republicans who are also blamed for the mass killing of 29 people in Omagh in 1998 at the time of the peace accords, believe that they can trigger the kind of repression of poor Catholic neighborhoods that during the conflict period helped sustain popular legitimacy for the IRA among Catholics. The PSNI which has invested considerable effort in branding itself as a successful model for post-conflict policing globally (see Graham Ellison and Conor O'Reilly, "'Ulster's policing goes global': The police reform process in Northern Ireland the creation of of a global brand," Crime Law and Social Change (2008) 50:331-351), knows that they cannot afford to alienate Catholic communities by a repressive crackdown. The only question is whether the political dynamics within the Loyalist/Protestant community can resist the impulse toward a crackdown.

Another prime theme of the conflict that is being brought into play in the post-conflict is the politics of informers. Ron Dudai, a post graduate student at Queens, School of Law, is exploring the post conflict politics of informers and the legacy of reprisal violence carried out against suspected informers (read a brief essay available on the web by Ron on this general topic). Informers played a crucial role during the conflict in both the British effort to combat the IRA, and in the IRA's effort to maintain legitimacy among the Catholic population. The rejectionist Republican militias are clearly seeking to extend that logic while the older Sein Fein/IRA has now taken the extraordinary step of asking Catholic community members to inform the PSNI about violent militias (read the Guardian story here).

Finally, the incident is a lesson in how the availability of weapons has changed the political calculus of militia violence. As Queens law professor and transitional justice scholar Kieran McEvoy told me while I was visiting Belfast, the IRA struggled during most of the troubles with a very limited access to high quality weapons. The highly unstable home made bombs relied on in the early phase frequently killed as many IRA members in accidents as they did victims in intentional terror acts. Only after they obtained high quality arms from Libya's Muamar Quaddafi could the IRA go on to its major terror successes in the 1980s, events that laid the groundwork for resolution in the 1990s. The use of fire arms was therefore highly regulated by the IRA leadership during the conflict. Tight control on weapons went along with a human capital strategy in which the cooperation of many individuals and whole communities was necessary to sustain the armed struggle. In contrast, the relatively tiny membership of the rejectionist IRA militias has access to relatively sophisticated weaponry that can achieve great lethality (the previous Omagh bombing killed 29, the largest during the entire conflict) which they can use with virtually no base of popular support. It is hard to see how that can be reversed which suggests a very long tail to violent conflicts.


Johann Koehler said...

Reading your blog post this morning reminded of work that Peter Bearman and colleagues were doing at Columbia. Just in case you weren't familiar, I thought I'd send along the link:

As I recall, the gist of the findings have been that as time has progressed since the de jure ceasefire and peace accords, the de facto recourse to maintaining violence has been the increasingly bi-partisan victim profiles among each respective terror group's agenda. In real terms, the Loyalist and Republican terror groups each became responsible not only for killing people who were from opposing political and religious factions, but they also began to victimise people who were ostensibly of their own political and religious persuasion.

What we saw in Omagh is that bloody dialogue being played out anew. I agree that this move from killing only those of the opposing side to killing those from one's own side who pose the threat of facilitating peaceful integration is rightly to be termed 'post-conflict violence'. The reality of the nomenclature, as you identify, is nowhere near as contradictory as it appears; however, I'm curious: given your previous post, which hypothesises a much more tempered attitude to governing through crime in post-conflict societies (which I happen to agree with -- as an example, just look at the provisions in the Good Friday agreements to see how Human Rights and the legitimacy of institutions are emphasised over the control of crime), how do we understand the lack of a rise in rhetoric surrounding the fear of the 'everyman' victim, when we now observe that the killings become unscrupulous regarding victim profile? Stated differently, if there is even less protection against sectarian killing as post-conflict violent encompasses anyone, irrespective of faction, surely we would expect an *intensification*, rather than an attenuation, of governing through crime logic?

Your previous post dealt with this question by stating that “efforts to appeal to an idealized crime victim "everyman" is refracted through the politicized nature of both interpersonal and state violence.” Could you elaborate a little bit further on this idea for us?

Jonathan Simon said...

Thanks Johann. One can expect the politicians at Stormont to mobilize around the rejectionist violence in the classic terms of populist punitiveness, but I suspect it will remain difficult given the political context of the violence. As you suggest we may also be seeing how the emphasis on human rights in transitional justice provides a potent alternative to the fear based logics of governing through crime. The currency that ideas like restorative justice seem to have in NI is really encouraging as is the energized human rights and social justice community.