Kent professor blames “fragile peace process” for suspect package attacks

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Friday, February 14, 2014
2:42 PM

University of Kent expert authored book about Northern Irish politics

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An expert in international conflicts believes the packages posted to army recruitment offices in Kent this week have shown the “fragile” state of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

After both the Chatham and Canterbury armed forces offices recieved suspicious devices, the Government confirmed a link with “Northern Ireland related terrorism”.

Professor Feargal Cochrane, director of research within the University of Kent’s school of politics and international relations, was the author of Northern Ireland: the Reluctant Peace.

He said: “The suspect packages sent to army recruitment offices across the South of England yesterday, deemed to bear the ‘hallmarks of Northern Ireland related’ paramilitary activity, are a reminder that the Northern Ireland peace process remains fragile. This is of course a serious concern in the immediate term, but also raises broader issues concerning the state of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the relationships between the main political parties.”

The professor also called for a “more realistic perspective” of the threat from political violence in Northern Ireland.

“With respect to the suspect packages themselves, a view was quickly formed that these were similar in composition to recent devices emanating from Northern Ireland. More specifically this refers to ‘dissident republican’ violence and this is an important distinction to make. There has been some lax discussion within the media linking this to the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA and phrases such as the ‘Provos’ going back to violence obscures important distinctions in who is involved in this violence and why they are doing it. Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was quick to come out and condemn the recent letter bomb attacks and point out that these were also an attack on the peace process. The reality is that these represent a very small sector of opinion in Northern Ireland even within the republican constituency.”

Professor Cochrane explained that he also found the reaction from Downing Street very interesting.

He said: “The fact that the prime minister convened an emergency COBRA meeting speaks volumes for the different sensitivity thresholds that operate within Northern Ireland on the one hand and across Great Britain on the other. This pragmatic reality is not lost on the broader community in Northern Ireland of either a unionist or nationalist persuasion, and it is certainly understood by those who are making and sending letter bombs and other explosive devices.

“The cold harsh political reality is that there is more propaganda value to be had from such attacks in Great Britain than there is in Northern Ireland and –to be blunt, a life in Great Britain is worth more than a life in Northern Ireland. This was understood by the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, which was one of the reasons why they exported their bombing campaign to Britain, and it is still understood today by those loosely grouped into the category of ‘dissident republicans’.

Professor Cochrane believes that there are a number of questions that should be asked in the light of the attacks on army recruitment offices.

He said: “First, is the threat of politically motivated violence getting stronger? Second, why has the peace process not been capable of eliminating this apparent throw-back to the dark days of the ‘Troubles’?

“With respect to the first, there is clearly a capacity and desire on behalf of ‘dissident’ republicans to maintain and further develop their ‘armed struggle’ against the UK. However, it is the fear of violence rather than violence itself which is at issue here. To put this in context, Northern Ireland remains a relatively peaceful place. In 2012 there were two deaths linked to politically motivated violence. This compares with 59 deaths from road accidents, 11 deaths from agricultural accidents and 289 suicides.

“In the 1970s in Northern Ireland this would account for an afternoon’s worth of activity, e.g. in the peak year of the violence, 1972, the death rate was over 500, an average of 1.3 per day. So neither the actual nor potential violence should confuse the fact that Northern Ireland is a relatively peaceful place today. Second, The reason why the peace process has been unable to prevent these attacks relates to the fact that the peace process has not fully grafted on to the society and that as the conflict took several generations to reach its conclusion, a sustainable and full peace will take at least as long to achieve.”

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