Northern Ireland isn't bloody enough, and that's the problem

November 30, 1993|By Padraig O'Malley

JUST two months ago, on the heels of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, predictions of an end to the 25-year struggle in Northern Ireland were widespread.

A peace initiative led by the head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, John Hume, and supported by Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, spurred further optimism.

But such hopes are misplaced. A string of 23 deaths in eight days made October the worst month for casualties in Northern Ireland since June 1976.

Last week, a large shipment of arms headed to Protestant paramilitary organizations via Poland was intercepted by British officials. And on Thursday, the IRA rejected Prime Minister John Major's call to renounce violence.

Why is the conflict in Northern Ireland so intractable, even when the groundwork for accommodation has been laid in more deeply divided societies? Why is there a lack of will and urgency to reach a resolution? Why the unflinching refusal to compromise?

Largely because Northern Ireland is a manageable conflict. This is not to slight the memories of more than 3,000 people who have lost their lives in the last 25 years, nor to deny that everyone in Northern Ireland is ultimately affected by the violence. But any large city in the U.S. has a rate of death by violence that is three to four times greater than Northern Ireland's.

Of the 16,000 people who die each per year in Northern Ireland, only 100 are killed by sectarian violence; twice that many die in traffic accidents.

Northern Ireland's troubles pale in comparison to the slaughter of 13,000 people in South Africa in the last three years, or the hate-driven rape of thousands of Muslim women by Serbs during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.

The level of violence in Northern Ireland has fluctuated widely over the last 25 years, from a high of about 200 deaths per month to a low of about six in the late 1980s. The lower the death rate, the easier it is for politicians to leave well enough alone.

And the geographic distribution of violence suggests widely different experiences. The daily impact is borne disproportionately by the poor and the powerless. North Belfast and West Belfast, both poor working-class areas, account for 40 percent of deaths. Districts that share a border with the Republic of Ireland -- Newry, Armagh and Foyle -- account for 23 percent.

Away from the border -- North Down, Stranford, North Antrim and East Antrim -- fatalities were under 1 percent of the total.

So most people in Northern Ireland live normal lives. If you do not live in North or West Belfast or on the border and are not a member or former member of the government security forces, you are not really at risk of being killed.

The Opsahl Commission, an independent task force seeking political solutions to the violence (of which I am a member), heard testimony from more than 700 citizens of Northern Ireland last year. When we asked them to describe the conflict's impact on their daily lives, invariably they said it had little or no impact except for the inconvenience of security checkpoints.

When the Department of Public Health Medicine asked citizens last year what the Any large city in the U.S. has a rate of death by violence that is three to four times greater than Northern Ireland's.

major causes of stress in their lives were, "the troubles" and crime were cited by less than a third of respondents, far behind family illness, work pressures and money worries. The situation just isn't bad enough for people to demand the compromises needed for a settlement.

During the Opsahl hearings, people were asked what pressures they felt their elected representatives were under to reach a solution. Every time the answer was the same: none.

This has led to a kind of institutionalized inertia:

* Politicians are not punished by voters for failing to reach a settlement. Elections are run along strict sectarian lines, and victory usually means incumbency for life.

* People do not expect the talks to succeed. In the Opsahl focus groups, participants were asked whether they expected a concurrent round of peace talks to fail. They responded overwhelmingly that the talks would fail, which they did. And even though most people wanted such discussions to take place, there was virtually across-the-board agreement that any talks would be doomed to failure.

* People are alienated from the political process. Apathy cuts across all class barriers, but is strongest in the middle classes, especially Protestants. This is a major hurdle because there can be no lasting settlement, particularly not unification with the Republic, unless Protestants support it.

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