Over 3,000 people were killed during the conflict in Ireland. Undoubtedly, much change has taken place since the peace agreement of 1998. A power-sharing government is in place with former protagonists like Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) working together on social, economic matters. The constitutional issue of Irish reunification can potentially be achieved by democratic means if a majority were to be secured in any future referendum.
Many things however still remain to be resolved between the communities. This year there was a clear attempt by those loyal to the British state to increase the political temperature around the annual Twelth of July demonstrations when thousands upon thousands of British Union Jack flags were flown along public highways and in many nationalist estates. There was also an increase in loyalist violence around a number of contentious loyalist parades which insisted on marching through catholic areas where they are not wanted. Also there was the sectarian motivated murder of a catholic grandfather, Kevin McDaid – surrounded by a loyalist mob and viciously beaten to death because he had objected to Union Jack flags being flown his housing estate.
It may well be a stretch to even consider that there is a deliberate attempt underway by elements within loyalism and unionism to use these situations to unravel a peace process. The key question being: what could possibly be gained in the long-term that they do not already have through the peace process? However in Ireland, as our history has frequently demonstrated in the past, sectarianism is not logical and it can take a single incident or a series of related incidents to spark off a more widespread reaction that can do enormous damage to a peace process.
It may appear senseless that someone can be kicked to death because they objected to flags being flown yet this tragic death is symptomatic of a wider issue. It is about the continuing reality of conflicting nationalities, cultures and identities. Those loyal to Britain exerting their dominance over Irish nationalists and republicans yet again.. In Ireland we are always a moment in time away from the reality of this fact and no peace agreement, unless it is implemented through the example of strong leadership from every political party to stamp out sectarianism, can fully hope to stop such incidents reoccurring.
This weekend, in a little known place called Rasharkin, the 90% catholic population are bracing themselves for an unwanted invasion of loyalists who will parade through their village waving union jacks and playing anti-catholic tunes about their historic p victories against the Irish. The catholic people will be sealed into their town by the police. Family life and the economy will be detrimentally affected. If any minority anywhere in the world was treated like this there would be unapologetic condemnation on the grounds of racial or politically motivated intimidation and harassment. Not so when it comes to Ireland. In fact loyalists are permitted to do so under the legal authority of a Parades Commission which has disgracefully allowed this type of behaviour on the grounds that it is part of the unionist people’s so-called cultural expression.
Would this be seen as a legitimate position by the black people of Harlem in New York if the Klu Klux Clann wanted to demonstrate there? I very much doubt it.
The issue of parades, of flags being flown inappropriately and offensively are but a few of the many outstanding issues that will challenge the power-sharing government when it returns from its parliamentary recess in September. In addition, the sensitive area of transferring responsibility for policing and justice from Westminster to local politicians in the power-sharing assembly in Belfast is a mammoth challenge ahead. It has been a priority area of work for Sinn Fein for many reasons, not least of which is the need for local policing and justice to be held to account for its budget and its operational decision-making.
In the meantime, a new chief of police has been appointed, replacing Sir Hugh Orde, to carry through on an ambitious community policing plan. In order to win cross-community confidence the new police chief will need to swiftly tackle many of the sectarian and criminal elements in our society who are destabilising the peace process. It is hoped by all of the parties, including Sinn Fein that the new chief constable will provide strong leadership. Above all he will need to continue to implement the many outstanding recommendations of the Patten Commission which has yet to deliver a representative policing service eleven years after the peace process began..