The Blanket

Interface Violence

Billy Mitchell

The escalation of interface violence, which has now spread to East Belfast and South Belfast, is a continuing source of concern for all of us who are engaged in the process of conflict transformation. Clearly our first and primary concern is for the those unfortunate people from both traditional communities who have suffered injury, trauma and loss of property as a result of interface violence. It is unacceptable that eight years into a so-called peace process and four years into devolved government people are still suffering as a result of violence within and across interface communities.

It seems to me that there are forces out there that are just too strong for peace building practitioners to tackle. There are times when I wonder if there is any point to the work that I am involved in. Yet I know that turning back from the conflict transformation process is not really an option. The old cliché that "all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" remains true. So there can be no turning back, but I am still haunted by the nagging question, "Am I really achieving anything of lasting significance in terms of peace-building and social justice"?.

It has been said by a number of political activists that the Belfast Agreement is panning out as a middle class agreement which has nothing to offer the working and workless classes in both traditional communities. That is only partially true. If the unionist and nationalist middle classes can unite to carve up the social and economic benefits of devolved government for their own people, surely those of us from both traditions who feel marginalised and excluded from those benefits ought to be coming together in a bond of working class solidarity. But we don't. We put tribal prejudices above our common social and economic interests and continue to beat the crap out of each other. That is our fault, not the fault of the middle classes who are manipulating the implementation of the Agreement for their own ends.

No one was more committed to the Belfast Agreement than I was. I encouraged my party leaders to endorse the Agreement and I campaigned vigorously to have it endorsed by the people in the run up to the referendum. Four years later, any hopes that I may have entertained about the Agreement bringing peace or about devolved government brining social and economic justice have been brutally shattered.

The implementation of the Agreement is rooted in a political process that is far removed from the grass roots conflict transformation process. Indeed many of us who are involved in the latter process now believe that it is being seriously damaged by the political process. Alienation within marginalised communities is being cynically manipulated and exploited by those who play the "Orange" and "Green" cards as a means of maintaining the divisions that are necessary for a continuation of tribal voting patterns and party political domination. Party domination requires maximising votes, which in turn requires developing and expanding the electoral base, which in turn requires either expanding or holding on to territory. Is it any wonder then that territory lies at the heart of most interface violence?

Whatever potential the Belfast Agreement might have had to facilitate political accommodation and conflict transformation has been undermined by an implementation process that is becoming more and more corrupt as the weeks go by. It is a process that is rooted in manipulation, half-truths and outright lies. Meanwhile at grass roots level inter-community relations have gone into a downward spiral with more and more ordinary people drawing back into their respective tribal camps.

The political establishment and civic society will hold up their hands in horror at what is happening on the streets of North, South and East Belfast. They will, of course, absolve themselves from any blame or complicity. “It is all the fault of the paramilitarities on both sides who are orchestrating the violence”. Isn’t it great to have a compound full of scapegoats! There will be no acknowledgement that they have failed to make the Agreement work for all the people. There will be no acknowledgement that the three main pro-Agreement parties have played devious games with each other during the implementation process, all to the detriment of the Agreement and the peace-building process. There will be no acknowledgement that that they have sought to marginalise and exclude the smaller pro-Agreement parties, again to the detriment of the Agreement and the peace process.

There will be no acknowledgement that the constitutional struggle (that lay at the heart of the armed conflict) has been replaced by a struggle for political dominance at both Assembly and local government level, and that this foments as much hatred, prejudice and hurt as the armed conflict did. There will be no recognition of the fact that this struggle for political dominance requires territorial gains and creates interface tension and conflict. There will be no acknowledgement that community relations and conflict transformation initiatives have been deliberately starved of adequate resources.

If this article sounds depressing, it is because the situation on the ground is depressing and while I have a great many gripes about the political process and its adverse impact on community relations and working-class solidarity, I have no solutions. And the question still haunts me, “Am I really achieving anything of lasting significance”? I suppose deep down the answer is “Yes, there is a lot of good lasting work going on within and across areas of conflict”, and, as I have already said, turning back is not an option. But I fear that we are in for a long hot summer.







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In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

Index: Current Articles

13 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Interface Violence

Billy Mitchell

What Chance Socialism?
Anthony McIntyre


Was Monday 29th April the day democracy died in the ATGWU?
Sean Smyth


9 June 2002


Pleading Guilty

Anthony McIntyre


A Missed Opportunity for Segregation

Liam O'Ruairc


Working Together

Marian Price (IRPWA)


After the General Elections, What Future for Sinn Féin?

Bob Shepherd


The War on Terrorism & the Irish Factor

MN Kelly



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