Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

'Post-conflict violence' in Northern Ireland

By Jonathan Simon

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.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.