50 years ago, this week Northern Ireland erupted into violence we hope that violence and those dark days are in our past. However, we all suspect and all fear there will be a return to violence in Northern Ireland as a result of a hard border due to a no deal Brexit or a rushed border poll. This is why the Taoiseach, all shades of politics in this state support the backstop. A report which I complied with Michael Ortiz who served as the first US diplomat focused on countering violent extremism (CVE) policy at the US Department of State and research by 2 UNESCO chairs, Professor Pat Dolan and Professor Mark Brennan, concluded that, ‘it is possible that a hard border could materialize due to a no deal Brexit, triggering a return to violence in Northern Ireland. All indications are that without direct efforts to engage youth and citizens of all backgrounds, there will also be a return to violence in the event of rushed border poll on the island of Ireland. The only question in both scenarios will be the scale of the violence.’
The research report highlights the issue of ‘Loss of memory of harm’, among the ‘Agreement Generation’ a term which applies to the generation born just before or since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This generation has no first-hand knowledge of the horrors of conflict and some will have been given a romanticised account of the ‘troubles’.
The serious problems of poverty and depredation facing the present generation, especially those who live in the most disadvantaged loyalist and republican areas are exacerbated by the toxic influence of paramilitaries intent on using young people to maintain their criminal and drug empires.
The first person in the Republic of Ireland to be awarded the prestigious UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement Professor Pat Dolan explains in the research “Firstly, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland most young people were not involved and were peaceful by nature. Secondly the human harm and damage that can be done by a small population of dissident youth from either or both communities can lead massive harm to people up to and including tragic death. So, this is not a simple matter of scale.” Proof of this tragic truth was shown to be a reality with the murder of Lyra McKee and the growing ability of dissidents in both communities to mobilise young people.
The research highlights the fact that a key element in preventing violent extremism is the role of community level leadership. However, all too often in some areas of Northern Ireland some of those vital community leaders are the ones involved in the radicalisation of the youth.
Professor Brennan, who along with Professor Dolan has been at the forefront of UNESCO research, programming, and policy in the area of Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) explains how this activities are a breach of these young people’s human rights “we argue that where children (and youth) are being supported by adults to willingly or unwillingly become involved in acts of violence in the North, that this is a violation of their human rights under the United Nations.”
The Professors do however acknowledge in the research the much positive work done in Northern Ireland by many individuals, groups, schools and civil society organisations but as we are aware it only takes a small number of people to cause a huge amount of harm.
The Professors address those who are calling for an immediate border poll in the event of a no deal Brexit and a return to a hard border “In anticipation of a future referendum on unification and a new Ireland, regardless of when this emerges, program and policy makers need to establish a basis for cross-society interaction, integrated schooling, and integrated existences (housing, work, and other settings). It is only through this sort of interaction, communication, and experience sharing that all sides realize common, general needs as well as the fact that they have nothing to fear from the ‘other’ side.” Those looking for a rushed border poll would simply not be learning the lesson of Brexit, that all the preparation, engagement and planning needs to be done in advance and then and only then would the referendum be held
Michael Ortiz, who also served as a principal policy advisor on counter terrorism to the National Security Advisor in the Obama White House, outlines how a return to violence can be prevented in advance of a referendum on a new agreed Ireland “Ireland and Northern Ireland have long struggled with terrorism, but have made tremendous progress in recent years. As leaders across the island grapple with the concept of a United Ireland, it is important to consider the ways, in which future violence could be prevented, including the strengthening of counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts, supporting civil society organisations, and religious and educational institutions, and providing citizens with the tools they need to intervene during the radicalization process”
Political leaders must not repeat the mistakes that led to August 1969 and the Troubles where disastrous political decision resulted in decades of death, destruction and a lost generation. The ‘Agreement Generation’ who are the inheritors of the peace process deserve a better future.
The research report ‘Northern Ireland Returning to Violence as a result of a Hard Border due to Brexit or a Rushed Border Poll: Risk to Youth’ is based on one of the recommendations in the report adopted unanimously by the All Party Oireachtas Parliamentary Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, “Brexit and the Future of Ireland, Uniting Ireland and Its People in Peace and Prosperity” compiled in 2017 by Senator Mark Daly.