Irish Independent

Slowly, the North has embraced the miracle of its peace

Celebrating a decade of peace: 'Ceasefire baby' Samuel Stewart from Carrickfergus in Co Antrim during his first trip to Stormont looks forward to his 10th birthday on Wednesday, the anniversary of the declaration of the IRA cessation of violence . . . just six minutes before he was born.

THE bricks still sometimes fly in Belfast, people still get killed. Old hatreds remain fresh, with divisions so deep that many simply cannot live together.

The scourge of paramilitarism still stalks the land.

Ten years to the day after the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, not a single one of Northern Ireland's plentiful problems has been solved: the political, social and economic problems are still there.

And yet 10 years of peace process have improved almost everything, gradually bringing a better life to almost everyone and ushering in a new era.

In the beginning there were hopes that this new phase would take away all the problems, but it has not worked out like that. Peace processes can be judged and measured in various ways, but perhaps the most telling calibration is that of simply counting how many lives are being lost in a conflict. It can be argued that up to 700 men, women and children who might have been killed are still alive today, because of the dramatic and unprecedented drop in killing rates since the ceasefires of 1994.

The number of killings in the decade after the IRA ceasefire is down to one-fifth of the total for the 10 previous years. Just 173 people died in the decade following the ceasefire, compared to 870 killed in the previous 10 years.

In recent years deaths have taken place at a rate of around one a month, while before the ceasefire killings were carried out at a rate of almost two a week.

The patterns of killings, as well as their scale, have changed significantly, with loyalists responsible for most of the deaths. Many of these are classed as internal feuding, often springing from turf wars involving racketeering and drugs. Many regard them as post-troubles deaths.

In terms of the IRA, it has been responsible for killing around 30 people in the last 10 years. This compares with more than 400 IRA deaths in the decade before its ceasefire. In the last few years its lethal activities have been much reduced, to the point where it is suspected of carrying out perhaps one killing a year, while the annual loyalist average is in double figures.

In fact, the last two deaths that can with confidence be attributed to the IRA took place in early 2001. Republican punishment attacks have also recently decreased.

The reduction in violence has been enough to transform many aspects of life, with a widespread relaxation visible in both the security forces and the public at large. After decades of military patrols, the sight of soldiers on the streets is in now a rarity in most places.

The geography and demography of north Belfast, where in some districts Catholics and Protestants see themselves as competing for land, has produced many less visible but long-running disputes which can sour the atmosphere.

Almost the entire working class lives apart as religious segregation has become more and more rigid. The two sides now work together much more, largely because of tough anti-discrimination job laws, while their homes and educational systems remain separate. But the economy has improved, though it continues to be kept afloat with substantial subsidies from Britain. There has been little in the way of flagship manufacturing investment, but many major retail outlets have opened.

There is little public acclaim for such progress since 30 years of conflict have, unsurprisingly, strengthened Belfast's traditional reserve and understatement. Pessimism is deeply ingrained. Advances tend to be noted but not celebrated. Many, for example, did not welcome the original declaration of the ceasefire, reacting instead with suspicion and uncertainty.

It has been a tortuously difficult decade, studded with disappointments and setbacks. Ten years is a long time to wait for an accommodation of the extremes, and the wait is not over yet.

But as well as an ordeal it has been a salutary and probably necessary education, with many learning the hard way that their dreams of conquest and outright victory are just dreams, and that in the end it will come down to give and take. And if the process has yet to deliver full peace it has also created much hope where once there was practically none. Belfast is no longer a metaphor for the intractable but an example of how, slowly and painfully, the unthinkable can eventually become possible.

David McKittrick

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