Posted by: Martin Russell | August 10, 2011

Cameron Statement: Decisive (Water Cannon) and Evasive (Response)

As riots diminished in London but reared their ugly head in other parts of Britain, P.M. Cameron had a difficult statement on his hands. Relatively successful in London, stagnating elsewhere. As a result, particularly in the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s unusally timed claim to halt police cuts, Cameron appeared decisive and evasive for obvious reasons.

He declared “all options on the table,” with water cannon “available at 24 hours notice” (arguably due to the required short term transportation and training). Cameron appeared decisive and swift – a marked contrast to accusations of his dithering in the early stages as he holidayed in Tuscany. And then the question came – what about response?

Cameron went elusive, evasive and escaped to a certain degree. The immediacy of chaos often disguises insight but as things settle down (and they will, maybe not overnight but they will), Cameron and his colleagues will come into focus. It may begin tomorrow as Parliament returns early from their holidays but Cameron may find himself as defenseless as the people who were left horribly exposed in the early stages of the violence.


The projected reasons behind the unrest in London are multiple. For an excellent discussion on this, see EA Worldview’s intriguing take on the issue. Their post is correct in ascertaining that the end to this cycle is “not yet understood.” Within such a fragmented and uncertain conclusion lies, well, uncertainty. The emerging rhetoric or consensus in the media is that the police have lost control. The descent into chaos was relative quick and sporadic and attempts to rectify the situation seem to have been as sporadic. In essence, this is due to the intrinsic nature of the police action – reactionary. The simplicity of good, effective policing is usually based on a proactive, predeterming and preemptive platform. The value of reactionary policing is dictated by a swift cohesion and co-ordination. This oxygen has been starved from the police in this instance. Their reactions have been as sporadic and chaotic as the threat they are facing. This is not a criticism however as the police are not the determinant in this story, yet.

Interestingly, Home Secretary Theresa May has been fending off calls to introduce the water cannon onto the streets in mainland U.K. Those of you familiar with the Northern Ireland story know that such policing techniques are quite familiar in civil unrest in the region. Apart from obviously telling us that Northern Ireland is a special case (my words not hers), she has argued that the way policing is done in Britain is “not through water cannon,” but “through consent of communities.” Definitionally, at least, incorrect if you look at Northern Ireland.

The partial story, thus far, of the London riots has been one of inept political response. From beginning as a peaceful vigil to the death of a man in North London, it has transformed to a different beast. The Mayor of London, the P.M., and Home Secretary were holidaying as parts of London burned. The length of time it took to decide to return suggests it must have been a tough decision to return. Many more lay ahead -and the currency and history of British policing policy in Northern Ireand has taken on a whole new meaning.

Posted by: Martin Russell | August 8, 2011

Hugh Carey and Northern Ireland: A Note

The death of former New York Governor Hugh Carey has been met with moving tributes. Dubbed the man who “saved New York” from financial ruin in the 1970’s, Carey’s legacy is in safe keeping, for example the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is in the process of being renamed after him. Perhaps another impact he had on the world can be seen on our island.

Carey has a remarkable story in terms of the conflict in Northern Ireland and it’s transformation towards a peace process. The events of the 1970’s and 1980’s are too many and too tragic to fit here but Carey always had an ear for Northern Ireland and an opinion that at times would not fit the norm. Perhaps his most visible role would have been as part of the so-called “Four Horsemen” along with Tip O’Neill, Daniel Moynihan and Edward Kennedy. The group played an important role in developing many steps along the road to transformation by providing a gateway for and consistency of U.S. political interest in the conflict. This, of course, would not be without its issues or contests.

The 1970’s and 1980’s run parallel to the Cold War mentality of the United States. Individuals such as Carey and groups such as the “Four Horsemen” worked within such frameworks. Often their views on Northern Ireland did not sit well with the political elite, on both sides of the Atlantic. Other times, they faced criticism with sections of the U.S. community for not going far enough on Northern Ireland as seen in their adherence to opposing I.R.A. violence. They were, however, a key part of the jigsaw at that moment. They provided agency, access and accountability. They understood that peace is not an instantaneous game, it is hard, tough, tedious and a game that has certain rules. Here lies the contradiction in this story.

The glory or success of conflict transformation or resolution usually writes the history. It is the peacemakers that are remembered, the instant of success collapses the story to that irreversible point of reference. But the road to such a point would not have been possible without the likes of Hugh Carey.

For that, he may not be easily remembered but look deep enough and it cannot be forgotten. One thing is certain, this island is a better place because of people like Hugh Carey. We wish our sincere condolences to his family.

The logic is simple –

Election fast approaching, widespread disgust for the political wrangling in Washington, economic uncertainty = President Obama trying to detach himself from John Boehner and occupy the moderator/centre position.

As the wrangling continued, it was working a treat. The arrival to a deal was never really in doubt. The apocalyptic claims of economic doom and a prospective downgrading of U.S. credit ratings would focus even the most clouded mind. So when the compromise did arrive, Obama had played a blinder right? Wrong.

His administration have their fingerprints all over the debacle and his attempted detachment towards the end of the saga was unlikely given the events of the past few weeks particularly the seemingly simultaneous television appeals with Boehner. But the agreement would quell the impacts right? Wrong.

Obama’s tenure has taken a hit. Partly due to his role in the dawdling move to compromise but also due to its impact. The credit rating downgrade is quite simply bad news for Obama ahead of the election.

In the immediate aftermath of the compromise the game had shifted. Obama’s rhetoric was one of a President acutely aware of the prize at stake, re-election. The story was now one of jobs, tackling chronic unemployment, etc. The election game had started well before, in his efforts to occupy the moderate centre.

However, the downgrading has left a historic mark on the Obama administration and is one that they would not have wanted ahead of the election race. Public opinion is waning marked by the fact that the narrative of job creation and unemployment is not too distant from that of the previous election. Progress?

So what could this all mean? The election may be more difficult than imagined after the euphoria after the death of Osama Bin Laden. Michele Bachmann was quick to draw fire on the downgrading and the compromise will not sit well with certain sections of the Democratic Party, the election game is well and truly on.

In golfing parlance, Obama has made the cut – time to make a move up the leaderboard.

It is a rather simple question, yet the answer forms an equation that is complex, uneven and at times confusing. Why the rise in violence in Northern Ireland? The past week has brought familiar tales, images and ideas to the surface in the region. The catalyst were the annually troublesome parades. The catalyst, not the cause. Further confrontation arose in Portadown in the last 24 hours. So why, and what about this equation?

There are many hypotheses, below is a list (not exhaustive) of possible causes. With this sample established, we must then turn to the ever evolving issue of consequence or to continue the working frame – what is the result of this equation?

Possible causes:

A) Disenchantment and Disengaged: Both negative concepts, they point to an understanding of the recent rise of violence as one based upon the failure to produce tangible and measurable “dividends” to the peace process. The face of the recent rise of violence has been the youth of Northern Ireland. This generation has been undermined by chronic unemployment, limited political engagement (by choice rather than design) and economic uncertainty. This disenchantment and disengagement can be fertile ground for dissent.

b) Dissident Undercurrent: One of the most silent issues in the recent upsurge in violence has been its consistency. The violence has been depicted as “normalised” activity, situated along a trajectory rooted in Northern Ireland’s past. However, such consistency could disguise a demanding characteristic – co-ordination. Certain sections of analysis have projected that dissident paramilitary groups have been a force in the violence. In truth, it is remarkably difficult to prescribe any evidence to such a hypothesis as the nature of communal violence depicts an image of sporadic chaos rather than constructed chaos. That is, however, not to say that it is untrue.

c) Good Old Fashioned Community Spirit: Another possible hypothesis is that the upsurge in violence is pretty much conditioned by the nature of the sectarian past of the region. A rather rudimentary reduction of society into a powerful “us and them” binary. This hypothesis arguably has an influence in a contextual frame. For example, this frame has great currency due to two capacities. Firstly, it is an irresistible point of reference and also it has great immediacy. These two factors are central components within communal mobilisation but they arguably remain a contextualising causality (if such a thing exists).

Again, many other possible hypotheses remain but some key elements remain to all. If we systematically decode the discussions above then certain conditions come to the fore. The issues are across a wide spectrum of areas (not earth shattering) and they are interconnected (again not exactly rocket science). However, relativity is a powerful tool in de-conditioning the conditioned. That is, what about the result?

The upsurge in violence whether positioned in the past, present or future indicate an awful lot about peace. The trajectory of peace is uneven, sporadic and unpredictable. It is, however, self-sustaining in that the trajectory of peace is consistently favourable when positioned against the trajectory of conflict. However, what Northern Ireland is experiencing at the moment is a period of apparent uncertainty. In fact, that is wrong. It is to be expected and engaged. The currency of relativity is important in this context as it opens the way to possible solutions. The effects of one will be felt on the other and so on. So let’s draw breath (and a conclusion):

What Northern Ireland is experiencing is a cause of peace and conflict. Moreover, it is nothing truly exceptional and in there lies the answer. The recent violence is part of the trajectory of peace – nothing more, nothing less. But do not underestimate the rise in violence, it cannot be truly “normalised” as if it is then the violence has the capability to contaminate the most valuable commodity currently available in Northern Ireland – peace.

The 12th of July is always a problematic day, it reverts connotations of Northern Ireland to arguments based on zero sum tribal politics, i.e. the attractive “reductionist” binary of ‘us and them’ where one community’s gain is seen as a loss to the other It is a fast paced date – pomp, pride and parades can quickly change to passion, protest and problems. The real story of the day is in the North, we “outside” the region are dependent on those within the region to gauge this change. The issue with this is that such a change can be immediate, apparently unrecognisable one moment and remarkably familiar the next. The challenge of immediacy you could call it. Today, however, twitter has been the gauge.

Twitter has it’s flaws. But if Twitter is nothing, it is immediate and moreover it is precision immediacy. Tweeting the Twelfth has been an astonishing journey. From the sublime to the sometimes silly, the process of tweeting has had it all. As violence has emerged in recent hours, the story is emerging on Twitter. Official or traditional media outlets have been excellent thus far in engaging the rise of violence, however they do not have the full legitimacy of the immediate. The story unfolds, Twitter continues to inform.

It is however only part of the process. The true value of events unfolding at the minute remains causality and consequentialism. That occurs outside the immediate. On Friday, we will be providing an indepth discussion on the recent rise of violence looking at possible causes, consequences and solutions. We would encourage all to participate and contact us with your thoughts.

A soaring flame is a highly emotive sight. It’s strength a sign of indestructable resilience, bellowing resistance in an amber glory. Defiance is its value. As darkness descended onto Northern Ireland last night, the skyline was littered with dark clouds and lit up by a seemingly unended amber glow. The traditional bonfires ahead of today’s Orange Parades served as an indication of things to come. Violence was lurking defiantly, and soon erupted.

Another twenty two police officers injued, vehicles hijacked and confrontation continued throughout the night in the west of the city. The culprits? Youthful sections of the community – perhaps the most worrying aspect of violence. The transition to peace is not a seamless, uninterrupted one. Discontent is normable and it has its suitors in the region (dissidents), but the reduction of such discontent into sustained violence in the streets is something that cannot be let linger much longer. The youthful exhuberance of the perpetrators point to this.

It remains highly problematic that one of the most disenchanted and disengaged sections of Northern Irish society in terms of implementing peace remain the youth. Many of those engaged in continued violence did not grow up with the Troubles yet their actions draw a certain relevance or credibility from the past. Furthermore, there is co-ordination of such confrontation from influences that have endured the past which levers a certain legitimacy in the community. However, the peace makers need to quickly realise the battlefield has changed somewhat. Reconciliation and reconstruction mean different things to different people. The politics of peace are fundamentally different to those who lived during the Troubles to those who were throwing the petrol bombs last night. You can oversimplify and reduce the discussion to economics or other relevant fields. But one of the key concepts of pursuing and implementing peace or transformation is the undeniable value of alternatives. The youth of Northern Ireland need jobs, money, security and a stake in the peace process. That does not begin on the streets. Quite simply, they need alternatives to the violence that will undoubtedly raise its head again today, July 12th.

Violence in Northern Ireland over the weekend resulted in injuries for six police officers. The source of the violence was reportedly over a dispute over flags. The disruption served as an important reminder of the road ahead for the region, the complexity of issues it faces and moreover the brittle balance of peace.

The symbolism of conflict, and in particular the conflict over symbolism, has a long and chequered past in most conflict ridden societies. There are many reasons for this. Initially, it sustains a ‘reductionist’ binary of us and them – symbolism provides an easy point of identification and reference. It is an active and protective mechanism drawing on collective recognition or mobilisation. It defines the appropiate us as opposed to the vilified “other”. Such symbolism, however minute, creates such a position for itself through the realms in which it is encountered. Quite often, the role of symbolism is institutionalised or positioned alongside already established and recongised institutions/groups. This helps position symbolism in a certain type of narrative/dialogue – it makes it readable to people. Even within this snapshot, it becomes clear that symbolism is important in the most mundane of settings – a form of psychological allegiance even in a normalised society. Within conflict, such processes are magnified due to the intensification of the definitional nature of conflicted groups – the “us” becomes incalculably more important as does the diminishing of the prescribed “other”. In terms of Northern Ireland, the dispute of symbolism points to this intensification. The issue of flags, ritualistic symbolisms, and other forms of collective recognition have provided the source of much confrontation. It was no mistake that it occured again over the weekend. Symbolism is dependent on many things, from institutions to a simple feat of timing.

July 12th, a date to which few others can compare in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order parades have an undeniable place in the history and future of Northern Irish society Read More…

For those of you who may have missed it, a special Prime Time edition on a new citizen engagement group “We The Citizens” was aired last night. The edition was full of debate on the origins, organisation and outputs of the group. People were passionate, if at times relatively uncertain. The simple binary of the approach undertaken, pro and con, failed to develop the inherent complexities such groups represent. They are a remarkable challenge and opportunity (the two are relatively rather than exclusive) and any collapsing to a simple binary is ineffective and ill-advised.

Claims of citizen education and engagement are noble concepts. However, they are arguably temporally inept given the current condition of the country. That is not to diminish the concept. Education and engagement takes a lot of time, effort and finance. A worrying part in the development of last night’s discussion were detrimental views on the role of Atlantic Philanthropies in financing the initiative. Atlantic Philanthropies has a remarkable record in Ireland, North and South, in which they have sustained peace, innovation and communities. Their role in the process is another indication of their continuing commitment to such discourses. And quite frankly, philanthropy remains one of the most underdeveloped vehicles of change in this country. It is an emerging culture that needs continued interest and support across generations.

However, the promise of this initiative is in its conceptual nature rather than the practical implementation. The temporal boundaries of such change are too broad to implement in such a model. They take time, and lots of it. Another intriguing debate last night was the configuration of the group itself, or defined here as the “representation template.” The template was originated from a long, engaged process by poll. To my understanding, it resulted in a sample 100 which met recently to conduct an assembly or discussion forum of sorts. The issue with this is that such a process, whilst again coherently and constructively pursued, is an exclusive process based upon the premise of inclusion. Arguably, citizenship is based on inclusion based upon the premise of exclusion. Citizenship is about being included as part of a collective “us” rather than an “other” group. There are elements of the selection process that can work, but it is fundamentally exclusive. This can be countered by conditioning and including distinguishing variables (which does seem to have been done in this case) but it will find it difficult to alienate such charges due to the exclusive nature of this type of engagement (such charges are epitomised by one participant on the panel declaring the initiative as symbolic of a social science experiment- it is not). Again, it is understandable that this approach was adopted if one looks at the logistics, physical and financial, of the endeavour.

In essence, to try to simplify the discussion to a simple binary as was seen in last night’s show is problematic (again understandable due to format of medium). The group have the seeds of constructive engagement and education but it also has flaws. The recurring image seems to be that the discussion in the coffee shop is quite different from the discussion within the initiative. Nobody was quick to point out that the discussion in the coffee shop, however relevant, does not seemed to have produced many identifiable outcomes in recent times (nevermind the fact that in recessionary times many people might be making coffee at home or in their workplace). Consequently, the group has a place – conceptually at least. It also has a long way to go, but a significant issue remains. Time, unfortunately, is at a premium and the practicalities proposed by the initiative will take a lot of time. One way to counter this is to gain legitimate, identifiable and calculable output/impact – Politics is usually a results driven business. Time, again, will tell.

Posted by: Martin Russell | June 22, 2011

Belfast Erupts Into Violence – A Comment

The violence in Belfast over the last two nights at certain intersections between the Catholic and Protestant communities has again drawn the world’s attention for all the wrong reason. However, in controversy lies opportunity. A photographer was shot last night – remains in stable condition – but the second successive night of violence has pundits grasping for the causal element or simply why? Too simple a question usually graduates to an answer that is all too simple. There is much going on, and here is the core of it.

1) The Blame Game : It’s the paramilitary groups. The blame is being accorded to a combination of the UVF (division within the group as possible source of initial outbreak of violence) and dissident republicans (blamed for the shooting). It seems obvious that the sectarian divide is the normalised discourse of blame. However, the muted element is the relatively orchestrated nature of the violence and such orchestration needs two things – structure and content. Both are dictated by the community. The violence indicates that enough is not being done to garner systematic, coherent and consistent support for the peace process at the grass-roots level, i.e. a “peace complacency” has set in. This complacency includes the political elite and they should have had ample indication from the relatively low turn-outs for the recent elections.

2) The Specifics of Blame: The calendar does not lie – marching season. The issue of parades is always a contentious one in Northern Ireland. The surge in violence has been put down to issues surrounding upcoming marches. The parades have always had an element of controversy and conflict. They are the symbolism of the divide, an expression of isolation and superiority from the “other” in Northern Ireland society – a display of sorts. This distinction of us and the “other” also transforms itself into another hypothetical on the blame game. Some corners has argued that the violence is part of a continued unease, arguably reflected in both societies, in regards to the continued investigations into the past. Here’s the irony, the futility of violence (in negotiating political, social, or cultural change) in Northern Ireland is well established. The very thing they are protesting against is the thing they are utilising, the past. The basic fact of the matter remains that Northern Ireland has to “deal with the past” to coin the ever popular phrase. A region stigmatised by conflict needs mechanisms in place to constructively shape and use the past as it can be a remarkably destructive force in the present and future – as the conflict itself so aptly displayed.

C) The Legacy Question

In essence, expect an amalgamation of the following interpretations in the following days – minority, past, future, peace and determination. The past two nights, if nothing else, have illustrated that the legacy of the conflict is still undecided. It is not yet defined by peace, it remains a process –  one that is tentatively and, at times, naively progressing and cannot be undermined by any level of complacency at any level. The contest for the legacy is still ongoing, look in Belfast tonight and you will see it first hand. Hopefully the imagery of the past two nights and possibly more to come serve as a timely warning rather than a mute representation. Time for Northern Ireland to get to work, metaphorically and literally.

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