DUBLIN - Five members of Northern Ireland's assembly got an unwelcome early Christmas present on Dec. 19 when envelopes containing bullets were sent to their offices in Belfast. The packages were just the latest sign of rising tensions in a region that has been living in an uneasy state of calm for the last decade and a half, and has some worried about the potential of a return to the bad old days -- when bombings, riots, and military operations were regular features of Northern Irish life.
Two recipients of the packages were members of the nationalist Sinn Fein party -- once known as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army -- and three belonged to the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party. Although the envelopes contained no notes, it wasn't hard to guess the motive behind them. One of the MPs, Alliance's Naomi Long, who represents predominantly unionist East Belfast, was issued a death threat earlier this month and forced to leave her home by loyalists angered at her party's decision to support a compromise with Irish nationalists on the thorny issue of whether to fly the British flag atop Belfast City Hall. Until two weeks ago, the flag flew continuously; now it will fly only on 15 designated days during the year.
Loyalists reacted angrily to the council's decision. On Dec. 3, as the council was voting on its new flags policy, a crowd outside, many with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces, broke through the back gate of City Hall. Their attempts to enter the building failed, but street protests have hit swathes of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, in the weeks since, in some of the worst unrest the region has seen since the 1990s.
The seasonal ill will has not been confined to the loyalists. Earlier this week, an off-duty police officer narrowly avoided serious injury, or even death, when two men opened fire on him in Bangor, a satellite town about 15 miles from Belfast. The assailants are thought to be anti-ceasefire republicans. On Dec. 20, two men were charged in connection with the murder of prison officer David Black, shot dead in November by a new militant group calling itself the Irish Republican Army. (The better-known Provisional IRA -- which waged an armed campaign against British rule for decades -- formally laid down its arms in 2005, though a number of splinter groups and have taken up the IRA mantle since then.)
Street protests. Shootings. Death threats. This is not what Northern Ireland was supposed to look like in 2012, almost 15 years after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement. That agreement, which introduced a power-sharing assembly between unionists and nationalists, has been largely considered a success, to the extent that the large-scale violence known collectively as "The Troubles" has come to an end. Between 2006 and 2010, only nine people were killed in political violence, compared with an average of more than 100 per year during the 30 years of The Troubles. British soldiers on the streets are no longer a quotidian feature of Northern Irish life.
But Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The number of "peacewalls," physical barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has increased sharply since the first ceasefires in 1994. Most people in the region cannot envisage the barriers being removed, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Ulster. In housing and education, Northern Ireland remains one of the most segregated tracts of land anywhere on the planet -- less than one in 10 children attends a school that is integrated between Catholics and Protestant. This figure has remained stubbornly low despite the cessation of violence.