The Rise of Extremism in Northern Ireland

Rioting, bombing and headline-grabbing murder attempts are all part of the dissident’s arsenal. The murder of Lyra McKee, shot because she was standing beside a police vehicle doing her job as a journalist, highlights their activity in Northern Ireland. In 2014, I was lucky enough to hear Lyra speak at a forum in Dublin. She spoke, and we listened, fascinated by the power of this young woman as she captured the room. Now Lyra is gone, murdered when doing what investigative journalists do best: observing what is happening and making sense of it for others. What does not make sense is her death.

The Good Friday Agreement, signifying peace between the Irish and British authorities to end the Irish Troubles, was signed in April 1998. Despite this, violence is seeping into Northern Irish society once again. Why has it come to this, after all the hope of fragile but intact peace during the last 21 years? In the year between March 2018 and February 2019, there were 37 shootings. There were 1.3 kilograms of explosives, 45 firearms and 3333 rounds of ammunition seized in Northern Ireland. Why are the young taking up arms again? Where are the politicians? Is political complacency leading to violence?

A Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme seems an unlikely and unexciting cause of political unrest. The 2012 RHIS in Northern Ireland had a fatal flaw: it was not capped. The idea was to encourage the use of alternative heat sources, such as wood-burning boilers. Companies soon discovered that the more alternative fuel you burned, the more money you got in subsidies. Another bonus was that the subsidies were very generous. ‘Cash for Ash’ wasted over £400m in overspend. The Minister responsible? Arlene Foster, now the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

In March 2017, the power-sharing initiative between the DUP and the republican Sinn Fein collapsed due to the scandal. Stormont, the seat of government, has been empty ever since. The two sides cannot agree on putting the government back together, and Northern Ireland currently holds the world record for not having an elected government in place. Nobody in power means no leadership, with no one steering the country along the thin line of peace.

While the Cash for Ash scandal was developing, so was Brexit. The British Government is the overseer of devolved power in Northern Ireland, but since 2016, Brexit has occupied the ministers in London.

Prime Minister Theresa May is losing votes in Parliament, her ministers are resigning, and she is under constant pressure just to stay in office. The result is that Westminster is paying little or no attention to what is happening in Stormont. The Irish Backstop, guaranteeing the open border between the North and Southern Ireland is, ironically, delaying Brexit and increasing the uncertainty.

As an added irony, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but the largest party, the DUP, campaigned in favour of it. The two main Northern Irish parties are busy not doing anything, as they cannot do anything without a sitting parliament. The UK government cut their salaries in 2018 as a nudge towards talks, but with little effect.

When there isn’t a government in power for some time, stasis takes over. For Northern Ireland, this means there is little action on job creation, economic development, youth services and help for the disadvantaged. Civic engagement and trust in politicians are evaporating, and some young people in Northern Ireland are turning to dissident groups, because what they promote makes sense to them.

Political gains so far are minimal; there was a win of one seat in the May 2019 local elections and more people turned out to protest against the dissidents than support them. What they do have is the power to corrupt and incite violence. Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, spoke recently about the Real IRA, the dissident group behind a lot of the violence, and the need for politicians to act:

The Real IRA are recruiting in Northern Ireland. They are not a huge organisation, but they are a dangerous one, so politicians have to be centre stage, said Ahern.

There isn’t a government of any colour in Northern Ireland to condemn the rise in violence. The majority of people involved in the unrest probably never knew the Troubles, and don’t know how quickly disorder can lead to murderous hate. Peace in Northern Ireland has always been fragile, but the current political stalemate is straining it to breaking point.

The UK government is not putting pressure on the political parties to come to an agreement; Brexit and its various forms are occupying their minds. Power-sharing talks reconvened in May 2019, as a response to the murder of Lyra McKee. No one is holding out much hope for success, but if the politicians can keep talking it will be one legacy of the young journalist’s murder. Talking is better than violence and one person wise enough to know that was Lyra McKee. Now it is up to the elected parties to honour her wisdom.