Return of the Troubles

Is Northern Ireland falling apart all over again?

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.

Many of those protesting the removal of the flag from Belfast City Hall -- a policy, incidentally, that was adopted by a slew of Unionist-dominated councils in other towns in the past 5 years without a murmur of complaint -- come from underprivileged Protestant communities where jobs are scarce and educational attainment low. The rise in tensions in recent years has coincided with a slump in the Northern Irish economy. Unemployment, which now stands at around 8 percent, has more than doubled since 2008. Spending cuts are beginning to bite, particularly in already deprived communities. Electoral turnout in such areas has fallen precipitously, and those Protestants who do vote generally support the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Their Catholic counterparts generally vote en mass for Sinn Fein. The DUP and Sinn Fein were once viewed as the unruly fringes of loyalism and republicanism respectively, but are now the dominant political forces in Northern Ireland.

While it is rightly credited for brining peace and stability to Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement -- negotiated with the strong support of Bill Clinton's administration and U.S. envoy George Mitchell -- is also in part to blame for the polarization of politics that has taken place since it was ratified in 1998. The power-sharing system it established privileges sectarian politics: On election to the assembly, known locally as Stormont, all members must designate themselves "nationalist," "unionist," or "other." Thanks to the terms of the agreement, most bills in the assembly require 60 percent support to pass and at least 40 percent support from both the nationalist and unionist designations voting. The most extreme ethnic voices -- Sinn Fein and the DUP -- have profited handsomely from this system, while their more moderate rivals in the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party have floundered. The "others" are effectively powerless -- one reason why the non-sectarian Alliance party has improved only marginally on the 6.5 percent of the vote it received in the first devolved elections, in 1998.

Somewhat ironically, this hollowing out of the middle ground of Northern Irish politics has occurred at a time when identity appears increasingly fluid. The results of the 2011 Northern Ireland census, released last week, showed that while two-fifths of respondents identified themselves only as "British" and a quarter put themselves down as "Irish," just over 21 percent described themselves as Northern Irish. It was the first time the question had ever been asked.

The surprisingly large number claiming "Northern Irish" identity -- particularly among young people -- has been hailed in some quarters as evidence that the next generation may finally be moving beyond the embattled Orange and Green silos of their forebears. But a "Northern Irish" identity does not mean a more tolerant one. Many of those who checked this box on the census are likely the same ones on the streets protesting the loss of their "cultural identity," as represented by the red, white, and blue flag over Belfast City. The arrest of an 11-year-old boy connection with flag-related disturbances in Lisburn earlier this week may have been a glimpse of the region's future.

The recent instability may come as such a surprise given that, from the outside, reconciliation between the two sides seemed to be making great strides. The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the seemingly impossible -- republicans and loyalists, in the form of Sinn Fein and the DUP, sharing power. But despite the photo ops featuring former IRA leaders and the Queen, and the bonhomie between once sworn enemies Ian Paisley, the erstwhile first minister and late unionist firebrand, and his deputy, onetime terrorist Martin McGuinness Stormont has delivered precious little in terms of policy,. The lack of a real opposition has not helped matters. A long-neglected anti-sectarian strategy, Sharing, Cohesion and Integration, has still not been passed by Stormont.

As an elite-level compromise, the agreement has been a tremendous success, but the distance between Northern Ireland's political classes and their supporters appears to be widening. Unlike previous mass loyalist demonstrations -- the iconic 1985 ‘Ulster Says No' campaign outside Belfast City Hall, which brought down the Anglo-Irish Agreement, for example -- the current unrest has been orchestrated not by demagogic leaders, but by disenfranchised young men on social media.

As it stands, Northern Irish politics benefits the rulers but leaves the ruled increasingly voiceless. If the region can't create a political framework that allows the "others" to be heard, extremists on both sides will continue to dictate Northern Ireland's future.



The Mess We Left Behind in Libya

While Washington is busy fighting over a report, Benghazi is descending into chaos. 

BENGHAZI - While heads are rolling in Washington over a damning independent report that found the U.S. State Department's security planning to be "grossly inadequate," tensions in Libya's second largest city continue to rise. On Sunday, gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police compound in the city, killing one officer and sparking a firefight that resulted in the deaths of three others who had rushed to the scene. Images of a patrol vehicle's blood-splattered interior rippled across Libyan TV channels and social media. Not for the first time, Benghazians wondered what had become of the city they proudly describe as the wellspring of Libya's revolution.

More than three months after the storming of the U.S. mission, and with the Libyan investigation into the attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans all but ground to a halt, Benghazi remains jittery and tense. Even in affluent neighborhoods, gunfire and explosions form an almost nightly soundtrack. Many residents are wary about where they venture after dark. The American drones that circle overhead prompt bitter complaints -- as well as the occasional attempt at black humor. "That's my brother-in-law up there keeping an eye on me," one man said with a laugh as he pointed skywards.

But there is little levity when it comes to confronting Benghazi's dense knot of security challenges -- which include rogue militias, frequent assassinations, and a fraught political environment made even more flammable by the ready availability of weapons. "I think the security situation is going from bad to worse after the consulate attack," says Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. Why that is depends on whom you ask.

For some, Ansar al-Sharia, the hardline Islamist faction which has rejected accusations it was involved in the U.S. consulate attack, is a popular target. "The Ansar people want to kill everybody who is against their ideology or anyone who was involved with Qaddafi," said one Benghazi resident, as he and a friend debated who may have been behind the weekend attack on the police station.  His companion begged to differ: "No, no, it was the azlaam (Qaddafi loyalists). They want to destroy the reputation of the Islamists and create chaos at the same time." Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sentiment resonates with many of the former rebels -- Islamist and otherwise -- who still call themselves thuwar, or revolutionaries.

Fourteen months after Muammar al-Qaddafi's death, Benghazi finds itself pulled in multiple directions. Not only are there tensions between powerful militias that pride themselves on their revolutionary credentials and remnants of the old order -- pejoratively referred to as taheleb, the Arabic word for algae and a reference to the green color of the Qaddafi era flag -- but cleavages between Islamists and non-Islamists, and supporters and opponents of the region's nascent federalist movement also threaten to tear the city apart.

These dynamics often overlap, but the deadliest tensions spring from the animosity between security officials who served the former regime and those within the ranks of the thuwar, who experienced its brutality first hand. Eastern Libya's constellation of Islamist-leaning militias, several of which are nominally under the authority of the government, contains commanders and rank-and-file fighters that span a broad ideological spectrum. They range from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to Salafists, to a handful of radicals who cleave to takfiri ideology, which sanctions the killing of Muslims deemed to be insufficiently pious.

What a large number of Benghazi's militiamen have in common, however, is the shared experience of incarceration in Gaddafi's prisons, in particular Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli jail where political dissidents, most of them Islamists, ended up prior to the uprising.

"I think it is mostly the Islamists behind these killings because the people that have been killed are mostly those who were working in national security while the Islamists were in prison and were being tortured," says Wanis al-Sharif, the Interior Ministry official. "Now the Islamists are out and I think they are carrying out these revenge attacks."

But others see this as something more than the vulgar pursuit of revenge. They see the violence as part of a larger struggle for Libya's soul as the post-Gaddafi state tentatively takes shape. That battle is as much about ideology as anything else: conversations with those who inhabit Benghazi's Islamist milieu invariably turn to the drafting of the country's constitution, a process due to begin next year. "Many of these thuwar still don't trust the government. They are waiting for the constitution. It is very important for them," says Jamal Benour, a judge who acts as justice coordinator for Benghazi.

Most Libyans agree that sharia should be a main source for legislation, but religious hardliners, many of whom are armed, go further and insist it should be the only source of law. For example, a recently posted YouTube video shows a preacher in Benghazi denouncing the new government as secular-leaning, and telling the former revolutionary fighters to hold onto their weapons until sharia holds sway.

But it is precisely those weapons -- and the men that cling to them -- that brought Benghazi to the brink three months ago. Following the attack on the U.S. consulate, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest not just the assault, but also the continuing existence of rebel militias that many see as too accustomed to the power of the gun. Later that night, the compounds of three Islamist brigades -- February 17, Ansar al-Sharia, and Rafallah al-Sahati -- were stormed, with violent clashes occurring at the latter's base.

The militiamen, for their part, are still smarting from these so-called "Save Benghazi" demonstrations. "This was all the evil forces coming together -- federalists, azlaam, and corrupt members of the police and army -- to use the cover of people demonstrating to attack brigades that worked for the revolution and are now actively under the government's control," said Wissam bin Hamid, 35, a commander with an officially-sanctioned umbrella group of militias known as Libya Shield.

Hamid, who used to run a car workshop before the revolution, insisted that he eventually wants to return to his old life. But for now, he argued, forces like his help plug a security gap. His militia helped ensure elections in Benghazi ran smoothly, he said, and his men escorted American officials from their besieged compound during the Sept.11 attack. Later, they provided security for a U.S. investigation team that visited Benghazi.

"Everybody says they want police and army...even we [the former revolutionary fighters] want it. I want it. But we can only return to our old lives once [the police and army] are able to provide security."

Part of the uncertainty in Benghazi stems from the fact that Ashour Shuwail recently replaced Fawzi Abdelali as Libya's interior minister. Many are waiting to see what kind of changes will be ushered in by Shuwail, whose appointment was initially blocked by the so-called Integrity Commission, a body which screens candidates for links to the previous regime. Shuwail, who was head of the Benghazi police force when the revolution began, has considerable support among those who want to see the militias gone. "Now we have a lot of hope since [Shuwail] is one of us," said one man who took part in the "Save Benghazi" rally.

Others are not so sure. "I don't think Shuwail is the right man," Wanis al-Sharif said of his new boss. "The thuwar have openly registered their dislike for the man and I don't think it is healthy to have someone who does not have the backing of all sides especially at this critical stage...But we have big hopes for the program he is going to work on to get security back on the streets."

Shuwail's plan to improve security includes increasing the police presence in Benghazi and other cities and moving all heavy weaponry from urban areas into assigned military bases. He also plans to introduce legislation banning the selling or possession of arms, while allowing for the voluntary handing in of weapons as well as the integration of militia members into the ministries of defense and interior.

But as Shuwail and the Interior Ministry prepare to impose law and order, there is virtually no talk about the investigation into the attack on the U.S. consulate, which has so far turned up nothing. The independent report issued on Tuesday by the Accountability Review Board may have offered the most detailed account of the attack thus-far, but authorities in Libya have yet to make a single arrest in connection with the attack. Some have fingered Ahmad Abukhattallah, a local militia leader who admitted to being present that night, though he denies taking part in the attack. But even Abukhattallah has yet to be hauled in for questioning, he confirmed to us at the weekend.

Wanis al-Sharif acknowledges that the investigation appears to have drifted. He blames it on the fact Libya has yet to establish proper security forces, let alone a functioning judicial system. "What can you expect from a country with no criminal investigative department?" he says. "It is almost impossible."

AFP/Getty Images