The Troubles Revisited?


Kate Rothwell looks at the increasing threat posed by the recent outbreaks of violence in the North

Northern Ireland’s past has been coloured by troubled years and triumphant occasions, and while the latter had been the mainstay of recent times, the ugly head of violent incidents is yet again raising its head.

The last month alone has seen paramilitary-style shooting, pipe-bomb attacks and the discovery of explosive devices planted next to primary schools hit the headlines.

Eight-year-old Brendan Shannon, a pupil at Comgall’s Catholic Primary School in Antrim, found a viable pipe bomb in the school playground and brought it to a teacher. The school was evacuated and the bomb was defused without any injuries, but the potential consequences of this incident are something that no parent, teacher or even child involved will be able to forget.

The Northern Irish tourist industry has had to deal with the country’s war-torn image for many years. Even in the years after the Troubles, many Irish people who have travelled abroad will be familiar with being asked about ‘the war in Ireland’. While there is no official date for the end of the Troubles, many consider the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to be the period’s conclusion.

A violent reputation is hard to shake, and just when Northern Ireland’s touristic attractions had started to be appreciated in their own right, their recognition has been marred by a travel warning issued by the Australian government.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs warned that “incidents of sectarian violence and dissident activity have escalated during 2009 and 2010”, and advised visitors to avoid the annual parades that take place from April to August, as they “may turn violent with little warning”.

The United States and New Zealand governments also warn against the danger of attending these parades, with the U.S. cautioning against “sporadic incidents of street violence and/or sectarian confrontation” even outside of the marching season.

Tourist industries worldwide have felt the effect of the economic downturn, and the Northern Irish tourist industry is no different; suffering a 22% decrease in overseas tourist receipts and a 16% decrease in overseas visitors in 2009. Regardless of the amount of ‘staycations’ there may have been, it has not compensated for the decrease in capital usually brought in by foreign tourists. With this difficult economic setting in mind, the Australian government’s decision has fallen at a cruel and crucial time.

The move was described as “somewhat of an overreaction” by Social, Democratic and Labour Party assembly member Margaret Ritchie, but the question still stands as to whether or not this is true.

After all, these marches can hardly be described as family-friendly events when the 12th July march this year was followed by three nights of violence. Numerous police officers were injured and over 70 people have been arrested in relation to disturbances during the marching season. Just last week it came to light that 15 people were injured in a hit-and-run accident on the night of the 11th July, when a man accelerated his car after it had been surrounded by a group of men shouting sectarian abuse.

The driver of this car was 29, but photos and video footage of the rioting on and after the 12th July clearly showed that a number of those involved were teenagers. The involvement of children in violent activity was brought to a shocking new level a few weeks ago when an 11-year-old boy was charged with riotous assembly and possession of an offensive weapon in Belfast.

Northern Secretary Owen Paterson has warned that if politicians in Northern Ireland do not come up with a new system for making decisions regarding the yearly parades soon, i.e. replace the current Parades Commission, then the British government will appoint a new commission.

The Independent Monitoring Commission reported in November 2009 that dissident republican activity was at its highest in over five years, and now nine months later, the Police Federation has called for an extra 1,000 police in order to combat such violence, and MI5 have warned that the threat posed by dissident republican groups may stretch to Great Britain.

The hopeful news that a number of parades at the end of the marching season took place without any violent incidents has been severely tainted by these recent announcements.

Northern Ireland’s progressive historic events are to be lauded; the Peace Process has led to groundbreaking historic events such as the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the Provisional IRA’s announcement in 2005 that it was decommissioning all of its weapons.

Be this as it may, it cannot be denied that the number of violent dissident incidents has risen over the last couple of months. Although this may be to the disgust of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the fact is that should such attacks continue to increase, then the country’s reputation as a war-torn state will return.