A surge in sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland raises concerns over a return to the violent troubles of the past.
Sunday, September 4, 2011 - 20:30

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland 13 years ago, there were finally hopes for peace after years of violent conflict.

But now a new generation of Irish Republicans are emerging, who feel they've been sold out by the IRA and Sinn Féin's involvement in the peace agreement.

They're turning to small militant groups and once again the divide between the Protestant Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, and the Catholic Republicans, who see it as part of the Irish Republic, is coming to the fore.

There's been a recent surge in sectarian attacks, especially on the streets of Belfast, where barbed wire barricades still divide the two communities.

The violence has led to heightened security concerns across Northern Ireland, and even in mainland Britain, so could it lead to a return to the full-scale troubles of the past?

Evan Williams reports on the feelings on both sides of the barricades.

WATCH - Click to see his report.

BACKGROUND - Read about the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland in an interactive guide on the Guardian website and look at the study by Martyn Frampton from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, which is featured in Evan's report, about the new rise in violence.




The recent rioting on the streets of England shocked the world, but there is one part of the UK where violence has been a regular event for generations. Northern Ireland had been relatively calm in the 13 years since the Good Friday Agreement gave the Irish republican movement a share of power. But now, a new upsurge in violence has many worried about the return of hard-core nationalism fuelled by young recruits who feel their leaders have sold them out. Here's Evan Williams.

REPORTER: Evan Williams

Angry young Catholics attack police with anything at hand on the streets of Belfast. Bottles and rocks soon become fence posts and then firebombs.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON, QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY: The motivation for the dissident violence, and particularly in attacking the police service, is to show that Northern Ireland is not a normal society, to show that the conflict is not over. For them the conflict in Ireland can never be over for as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

The IRA and Provisional IRA were once the heroes of these young men. But since joining the peace process, the IRA is seen, at least to some in these areas, to have sold them out. Now new republican splinter groups are moving in to fill the vacuum.

Since the worst of the sectarian violence - and the power sharing in the Northern Irish Parliament - the territory has tried to reinvent itself as a place of peace - not conflict. But according to terror specialist Martyn Frampton, that's only what we see on the surface.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: Particularly over the last three to four years if one looks at what's happened attention flits to Northern Ireland when a policeman is killed or seriously injured, but then flits away again and the gaze is lost and so people ignore the fact that bombs have been left at banks, police stations, or mortared or people trying to blow up police patrols, and so there is a lack of attention, I think, to the level of activity that's underway.

The stand off reaches flashpoint, when the Protestants noisily celebrate the moment when William of Orange defeated the Catholics and entrenched English, Protestant rule here in the seventeenth century. To mark that battle, the Protestant Orangemen see it as their right to march through Belfast and that includes sections of the city that are Catholic and Nationalist.

Under the guard of the police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI, the Protestant orders march past the staunchly Catholic Ardoyne district. Some Catholics silently protest, while others are cornered by the police as they try to confront the marchers. It doesn't take long for the anger to boil over. These riots are increasingly being used as the recruitment ground for a new generation of dissident Republican groups that do not agree with the power-sharing peace process.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: The way that the peace process was sold by Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams in the 1990s is that this peace process would advance the cause of Irish unity in a way that the provisional IRA's campaign could not. By about 2005, 2006, people were coming to feel that this wasn't the case. That they had, in their own words, been sold a pup that the peace process wasn't delivering on republican objectives and that they should, to some extent, go back to what they knew best.

They felt that Sinn Fein was trapped in a 'partitionist' solution, trapped in Stormont, trapped in administering British rule in Northern Ireland; that they had moved away from classical Irish republicanism and therefore what was needed was a return to a pure form of the faith.

Snaking across Belfast's most volatile suburbs, these barriers are called 'Peace Lines'. They were erected to protect the residents on both sides from each other, but they also serve to reinforce the already deeply entrenched sectarian divisions. Eddie Campbell is from the Catholic side.

EDDIE CAMPBELL: There are young lads in those communities joining other organisations such as the Real IRA, such as the Oglaigh na heireann, the 32s and whatever else you have, there are that many different groups anyway. People know there's injustice being done in their community and that is why these lads are standing up to what they are doing.

It's these new, dissident republican groups that are being blamed for the surg in violence over Northern Ireland.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: In 2007, there were 12 incidents of republican related shootings or bombings. Now by the end of 2010, there were 99 in that year. It's a significant jump. We shouldn't blow this out of proportion - these are still significantly below the worst years of the Troubles and it is not approaching that, but what it reflects is certain small communities and republican what I call heartland communities, a subculture within Northern Ireland that appears to fallen under the control of the dissident republican community.

THOMAS CAMPBELL: They see themselves getting lifted and arrested, they'll go, throwing bricks at the police won't do it, so they'll want to get bigger stuff. They join organisations to try and get their hands on bombs, weapons;. These young lads have never been through it before - they carry more guts - they'll do whatever they have to do.

Thomas Campbell has lived all his life in the Ardoyne.

THOMAS CAMPBELL: I think a lot of young people will join it because they think the republican movement has left the community to fend for themselves. We never see the Republican leadership, Sinn Fein - you don't see them until election day, so these young lads look for new leadership. They see these organisations as their new leaders.

One of the main targets of the dissident movement's are young Catholics who join the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI. Since 2007, there have been a resurgence in attempted shootings and bombs planted under several officers' cars. Most didn't explode, but two officers have been killed and one seriously injured. In March 2009, policeman Steve Carroll was shot dead. The Continuity IRA said they killed him. His wife, Kate, is still struggling with the loss.

KATE CARROLL: It's just like living in hell. There are birthdays, anniversaries, watching your family, watching my son - who is distraught at times and needs his dad there to talk to - even myself, if I'm ill, the first thing I want is my husband with me. I'm on my own even with a house full of people.

The police service is now on high alert for more killings as new recruits seem willing to take up the dissident cause.

KATE CARROLL: I'd ask them to consider what they are doing. Why are they doing it? What difference is it going to make in their lives, apart from hurting the lives of others?

But 40 kilometres outside Belfast, in the town of Lurgan, there's not much sympathy. Instead, there are clear signs of support for the group that killed Kate's husband - the 'Continuity IRA'.

MAN: Well the police come in here and they raid houses and they smash doors in, smash your house up and take people out of their houses at five, six o'clock in the morning, arrest them, hold them for maybe three, four or five days and then let them go with no charges. So I don't understand why they do that, to be honest with you.

BOY: Some say they have changes from the RUC to a new policing force but personally, I think that their policies remain the same.

MAN: They have stopped and searched young kids going to school, 12 and 13 years of age. 10, 11 years of age - searched their school bags, took their phones. What sort of a police force do you think that is then?

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: To take the example of Lurgan, there is some housing estates there which seem to sustain persistent episodes of rioting. I think there you have a classic example of socio-economic dislocation if you like. People who lived in quite deprived urban communities, so called sink estates, whose situations can be paralleled in other urban communities across the United Kingdom, if you look in London;.

REPORTER: High unemployment?

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: High unemployment, low levels of opportunity, relatively poor housing and so forth. Exactly the same as if you went down to Brixton in London or Toxteth in Liverpool. What's different is they are given an explanation, an explanatory narrative by an older generation which says 'you know the reason why your lives are like this it's because you live in an occupied state, Britain is still occupying Ireland.' And that helps them make sense of their world - it has a real power to it.

Back in Belfast, they are burning cars. It may be only a small group, but high unemployment, mixed with feelings that they have to fend for themselves is a toxic combination. Many of those in power now, use violence to get there, which means they are now are powerless to stop the rage and retribution.

ROBIN WILSON, WRITER: They really don't know what to do about it because Sinn Fein can't do anything other than say 'do as we say not as we did'. Because a very large proportion of Sinn Fein representatives are former prisoners and Martin McGuiness was twice convicted of IRA membership in the 70s so they can't say this is wrong because they would say what they were doing was wrong.

But analysts point out the new dissident movement is made up of veteran IRA members who feel left behind by the peace process.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: What the dissidents have managed to establish is because there's been an influx of former provisional IRA members in certain key areas whether its East Tyrone or Londonderry or Belfast, you have former members of the provisional IRA, known republicans, people who have a certain status in those local communities who are held in a certain degree of reverence, looked up to, certainly they would be held with a mixture of respect, and I suspect fear, and they are the people who are able to control to some extent the actions of those youths and its very telling the kind of shift in power that's occurred.

And just like the old days, they are using these riots to test - or blood - potential young recruits.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: Now that's not to say that every youth involved in rioting is going to go ahead and become a dissident republican gunman or explosive expert, but invariably I think this can be a first rung on the ladder to greater degrees of involvement.

No one is saying the threat is big enough to undermine peace in Northern Ireland. Most people want an end to violence.

But the volatile mix of angry young men with no jobs being ready recruits for a cause they can believe in, creates a danger that is not being taken seriously enough by those on both sides, who have used violence themselves to get to power.

DR MARTYN FRAMPTON: It would be a welcome shock to me if more members of the security services weren't killed in the next 18 months, the dissidents seem to have the capacity and a drive to operate, to carry out acts of serious violence which I don't anticipate to diminish seriously in the immediate future. So I fear the immediate future will be more of the same.





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Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

4th September 2011