The murder of two soldiers and the injuries sustained by four others (including two civilians) in a gun attack at the Massareene barracks north of Belfast at the weekend reminded us of the dark days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998. However, it was also a stark reminder that, even in supposedly peaceful times, the possibility of outbreaks of violence is always existent below the surface of formal political agreement. This has been reinforced by the shooting of a police officer in Craigavon, Co. Armagh overnight.
The Massareene attack carried out by the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) throws Northern Ireland back into the spotlight of international politics when it has barely merited a mention since the 1998 agreement. This reflects the tumultuous nature of global politics in the last ten years, the media focus on “where the action is” in its coverage of international affairs, and the narrow spectrum within which analysis of Northern Irish politics has been conducted.
What do the attacks this weekend tell us that is new about Northern Ireland? For seasoned observers, they remind us that the conflict was never “ended” by the peace agreement in 1998 or the subsequent St Andrews accord. Indeed, it is an indicator that these conflicts are never ended or resolved but managed and transformed into new manifestations.
It is also points to the continued resistance to the agreement that has prevailed since the 1990s on both sides of the ethno-national divide: there was never a consensus in Northern Ireland but instead a sizeable majority that supported the peace process. Consensuses are never quite what they appear: they may be manifestations of greater or lesser agreement, but they are also a primary tool of political actors trying to simulate decontestation where possible to shore up their stances and policies.
In other words, there were always militant republicans in Northern Ireland who rejected the peace process and until this point they have been relatively unsuccessful in their endeavours to unsettle the peace process despite various efforts to carry out acts of political violence. This doesn’t mean they were not there. Instead we need to remember that they are very small in number, are rejected by many republicans who remember the damage done by events like the Omagh bomb (also carried out by RIRA) and nowhere nearby as well resourced as the republican movement during the Troubles.
In the narrow constraints of Northern Irish politics, this act will shore up rather than derail the ongoing peace process. The major parties, and most notably the DUP and Sinn Fein, were quick to voice their rejection of the rationality underpinning the shootings. A few supporters may rejoice but the support base of RIRA is minimal and the feeling of revulsion at a return to darker days is widespread even amongst republicans who might have turned the other cheek in the 1970s and 1980s.
On a wider level though it tells us something important about how we consider international affairs. We need to recognise that political agreements do not end violence and that much low level sectarian conflict takes place away from the media spotlight. It suits politicians to present conflicts as resolved as a sign of their achievements but, in practice, conflicts can never be resolved by political leaders. This is especially the case where sectarianism and conflict become part of a way of life as was the case in Northern Ireland.
The recent murders will not derail the peace process because there is no appetite for war. Most sides recognise that the political field is the best domain in which to fight their cause and seek to attain their objectives. But we do need to recognise that this faith in politics is fragile and liable to be disrupted by those with a different axe to grind. As with any consensus, it holds together because those on the margins have been left out.
As long as some with a claim to be inside the acceptable field of politics are outside, then the propensity for violence and political conflict remains.