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Latest update : 2014-07-02

Northern Ireland: Old wounds reopened in Belfast

Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement, signed in April 1998, put an end to thirty years of conflict between Nationalists and Republicans. Since its signature, traditional enemies have worked together in the same Assembly and even the same government. But last May, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams was detained for questioning over a murder committed by the IRA in 1972, an incident that has reopened old wounds. Clare Murphy reports.

It’s summertime. But sadly in Northern Ireland that means one thing - the threat of violence erupting at sectarian interfaces, particularly in Belfast.

The traditional Protestant marching day - the 12th of July - has been plagued by rioting and clashes in the city over recent years and it’s feared this season will be no different. 

Many may find this strange - as Northern Ireland is often held up as a prime example of a successful peace process bridging a divided community. A 1998 political deal ended three decades of conflict between the Catholic IRA militant group campaigning for a united Ireland - and the British security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups determined to preserve the United Kingdom. 

But this annual flare-up in tensions surrounding parades and "the Twelfth" is just one of many issues the renowned Good Friday Agreement failed to resolve. It may have successfully set-up a power-sharing government at Stormont, but 16 years on Republicans / Nationalists on one side and Unionists / Loyalists on the other remain at loggerheads over flags of national identity and dealing with the atrocities of the past that claimed over 3,600 lives. 

A concentrated effort was made to try to resolve these outstanding issues at the end of last year. But lengthy negotiations chaired by US diplomat, Dr Richard Haass, broke down without agreement. To exacerbate this, in February it was revealed that approximately 200 former members of the IRA “on the run” for crimes they are suspected of carrying out, had secretly received letters from the British government assuring them they would not be pursued. This revelation, along with the arrest and questioning of Republican leader, Gerry Adams, in May about a 1972 murder, has greatly increased tensions between the sides. 

Nevertheless, the pressure is currently building on local politicians to reach this so-far elusive accommodation on flags, parades and the past. As the 12th of July approaches there will be much diplomatic activity, with intensive talks scheduled to be held between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments.

To better understand the issues at stake at these talks a France 24 team visited Belfast for one week in May. Careful planning went into how we would tease out the difficult and complex history involved. We wanted to explore the problems that continue to hold Northern Irish society back, and to do this in a balanced way. However, it was important that our report not be overly pessimistic as daily life continues apace there and we also wished to illustrate how Belfast is making great strides in transforming itself from a grey, industrial hub into a modern, vibrant city.     

By Clare MURPHY

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