Ten years on: the difference the IRA ceasefire has made

The gunman's shadow still looms, but slowly life has improved for people who have long been victims of hatred. David McKittrick reports on a process that has created hope where there was none
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The Independent Online

The bricks still sometimes fly in Belfast: people still get killed; old hatreds remain fresh, with divisions so deep many simply cannot live together; the scourge of paramilitarism still stalks the land.

The bricks still sometimes fly in Belfast: people still get killed; old hatreds remain fresh, with divisions so deep many simply cannot live together; the scourge of paramilitarism still stalks the land.

Ten years to the day after the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, not one of Northern Ireland's plentiful problems has been solved: the political, social and economic problems are still there. Yet 10 years of peace process have gradually brought a better life to almost everyone, ushering in a new era.

In the beginning there were hopes that this new phase would solve all the problems, but it has not worked out like that. The IRA ceasefire was a momentous event, but as one observer said: "Ceasefires are not peace."

The republican cessation, and the loyalist one that followed it, have been flawed and imperfect but they paved the way for a great communal relaxation. As a result, Northern Ireland society is greatly troubled but also greatly improved.

Life is easier for most; the authorities have been able to reduce policing and security measures; the Maze prison is closed, the other jails almost empty; much of Belfast is buzzing; the belief that the worst is past is palpable.

Peace processes can be judged and measured in various ways, but perhaps the most telling calibration is that of simply counting how many lives are being lost. Paramilitary violence has by no means been eradicated, persisting in forms which include murder, "punishment" attacks and intimidation.

The shadow of the gunman has not disappeared, especially since renegade republican groups still dream of uniting Ireland by force. The security forces are largely on top of these splinters but a single attack that gets through can be catastrophic. Four years into the ceasefire the Real IRA killed 29 people in Omagh, in the last large-scale act of futility. It is a sobering thought that though most bombs are today intercepted, a single device can cause such carnage.

Yet it can be argued that up to 700 men, women and children who might have been killed are still alive today because of the dramatic and unprecedented drop in death rates since the ceasefires of 1994.

The number of killings in the decade after the IRA ceasefire is down to one-fifth of the total for the 10 previous years. In the decade after the ceasefire, 173 people were murdered, compared to 870 killed in the previous 10 years. In recent years, deaths are about one a month; before the ceasefire the rate was almost two a week.

Each new death is one too many, representing an individual tragedy and yet more shattered lives and families. With an overall total of 3,700 dead, Northern Ireland had a large enough burden of grief and bereavement without adding to it. Yet it might be argued, from the statistics, that up to 700 people may have been spared from early graves. The patterns of killings, as well as their scale, have changed significantly, with loyalists responsible for most of the deaths. Many of these are classed as internal feuding, often springing from turf wars involving racketeering and drugs. Many regard them as post-Troubles deaths. The IRA has been responsible for killing about 30 people in the past 10 years. In the decade before its ceasefire, the IRA killed 400.

In the past few years, its lethal activities have been much reduced, to the point where it is suspected of committing perhaps one killing a year. The annual loyalist average is in double figures. In fact, the last two deaths that can, with confidence, be attributed to the IRA were in early 2001. Republican "punishment" attacks have also recently decreased. Belfast now seems to have "paramilitarism-lite".

The reduction in violence has been enough to transform many aspects of life, with a widespread relaxation visible in both the security forces and the people. After decades of military patrols, the sight of soldiers on the streets is now a rarity in most places. Many police officers have been paid off as the Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the former Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sinn Fein has yet to support the new force, but other nationalists have backed moves toward more community-orientated and civilianised policing.

While the new service has been called on to deal with fewer disturbances and parading controversies in the past few years, trouble can still break out on the streets. This sometimes takes the form of one-off clashes, such as a brief outbreak of rioting at Ardoyne in north Belfast during an Orange march in July, but it can mean confrontations that last for months.

One of the most striking examples was in 2001 when a loyalist protest aimed at preventing Catholic girls attending school, again in Ardoyne, dragged on for months, generating great local bitterness. The geography and demography of north Belfast, where in some districts Catholics and Protestants see themselves as competing for land, has produced many instances of less visible but long-running disputes which can sour the atmosphere. The most recent example came only last week, when the remaining Protestant families in Torrens, a small north Belfast housing estate, moved out en masse after many years of peaceline disorder.

The tall peacelines which deface much of the north Belfast area are all-too-visible symbols of discord, yet the city has many other districts where dividing lines are less tangible but just as real. Almost the entire working class lives apart as religious segregation has become more rigid. The two sides now work together much more, largely because of tough anti-discrimination job laws, but their homes and educational systems remain separate.

The economy has improved, though it is still kept afloat with substantial subsidies from Britain. There has been little in the way of flagship manufact-uring investment, but many major retail outlets have opened. There is little public acclaim for such progress since 30 years of conflict have, unsurprisingly, strengthened Bel-fast's traditional reserve and understatement. Pessimism is deeply ingrained: advances tend to be noted but not celebrated. Many, for example, did not welcome the original declaration of the ceasefire, reacting instead with suspicion and uncertainty. In politics as in society, polarisation has been the order of the day, with the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein emerging during the decade as the principal champions of Unionism and nationalism.

The Belfast Assembly set up under the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, is in cold storage, its state of suspended animation arising from a lack of political trust. The Assembly has had a turbulent life, several times flickering in and out of existence.

But almost everyone in the political classes views it as a reasonably level playing field. Most believe the Assembly will at some stage be thawed out and resurrected, perhaps in the new round of talks due to open in Belfast tomorrow.

Although the eclipse of the more moderate parties has worried many, others draw hope from the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein seem seriously to be studying the idea of making a deal. Thus the extremes are not as extreme as they used to be, as those who used to denounce each other as terrorist godfathers and bigoted demagogues edge towards the conference room. The politics of confrontation are giving way to the politics of exploration and negotiation.

This is in itself another measure of how far things have moved, since in 1994 even voicing such an idea would have produced hoots of incredulity and derision. Now it is a possibility, something that will be immensely difficult to achieve but no longer an outcome that is out of the question.

It has been a tortuously difficult decade, studded with disappointments and setbacks. Ten years is a long time to wait for an accommodation of the extremes, and the wait is not over yet. But as well as an ordeal it has been a salutary and probably necessary education, with many learning the hard way that their dreams of conquest and outright victory are just dreams, and, in the end, it will come down to give and take.

And if the process has yet to deliver full peace it has also created much hope where there was practically none. Belfast is no longer a metaphor for the intractable but an example of how, slowly and painfully, the unthinkable can eventually become possible.

'Death of my mother devastated our family'


Michael McConville, a Catholic, last week marked the first anniversary of the discovery of the body of his mother, Jean, who was abducted, shot and buried by the IRA more than 30 years ago.

She was among "the disappeared", who simply vanished amid rumour. Mr McConville said yesterday: "It was nice to see the ceasefires coming about; it put an end to a lot of the killings on both sides.

"People realised they could speak out and people were willing to listen. The killing of my mother devastated our family. Most people got through the Troubles without having anybody close killed: they don't know how lucky they are."

'People are being tortured every day, and driven out'


Billy Hutchinson, a former loyalist prisoner and councillor, strongly feels working-class Protestant communities in north Belfast have been abandoned by much of society. "People are getting tortured every day," he said. "They're being driven out by intimidation and I'm frustrated that nobody wants to listen to the story. The past 10 years have brought good times for many people, who seem to be flocking back into the city centre and so on.

"But for disadvantaged Protestant areas, they have been bad. We have middle-class Protestants who live in comfort zones. If we just have enclaves of nationalists and republicans, how do we expect to get on in this society?"

'The quality of life is definitely on the up'


The Rt Rev Ken Newell, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, remarked on the reduction of funerals: "At the height of the Troubles most Presbyterian Moderators would have officiated at maybe six security force funerals in a year. This year I'm not expecting to do any. There has also been steady economic benefit - this is a good place to live, the quality of life is definitely on the up."

Local politicians had been working together, he said, while in church circles people have been coming together with small initiatives.

"These 10 years have brought us to the edge of the shutting down of republican violence for good," he said. "The war is over, I believe."

'We're now seeing some of the underlying problems'


Father Aidan Troy, the Catholic priest who in 2001 spent months immersed in the bitter Holy Cross school protest in Ardoyne, said he believed that the past 10 years had been good "in that the level of violence, the level of killing, the level of destruction has reduced.

"But in the absence of the huge violence, we're now seeing some of the underlying problems," said Fr Troy, chairman of the board of governors at the girls' school at the centre of loyalist protests. "The years haven't produced what might have been hoped for.

"There's still a lot of hatred, a lot of suspicion and very little trust. We have a mammoth task to make sure the next 10 years are better."