Friday, March 31, 2006

Peace in an Irish town

by Theo Russell

At Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis in Dublin last month the New Worker interviewed Gerry Machlochlainn, a Sinn Féin councillor in Derry City and former Sinn Féin representative in Britain, about the changes Derry has seen with the end of the conflict and the impact of the Good Friday Agreement in the north of Ireland. The following is his assessment of the changes seen in recent years:

MAJOR ADVANCES have taken place in Derry, such as the removal of British troops and military paraphernalia from the streets. There are still some listening and observation posts in the Rosemount district as well as a British army barracks but the military presence is far less visible.
Sinn Féin is much stronger in Derry and in the local elections in May 2005 achieved its largest ever vote. Although the party emerged with the same number of council seats, it closed the gap with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), for whom Derry is their main base in the Six Counties.
Sinn Féin now has ten councillors against 14 for the SDLP and six unionist seats (the overwhelming majority of Derry being Catholic and nationalist).
Under direct rule Derry suffered from a lack of investment and poor infrastructure and was very low in spending priorities. Sinn Féin is pushing an all-Ireland development agenda and a balanced regional approach in the northwest of Ireland, involving the counties of Donegal in the Republic and Derry, Limavady and Strabane in the Six Counties. The party has received a very positive response to its development policies.
Now the SDLP is also supporting "north-south development", and the government in Dublin is also talking about developing the northwest. Levels of poverty in Derry neighbouring and Donegal are still unacceptably high.
While the Irish Republic is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a GDP second in Europe to Luxembourg, it is also the most unequal in Europe.
The impact of globalisation has meant the export of traditional jobs such as clothing, textiles and other more recent industries to developing countries.
The "race to the bottom" and the cheapest labour mean that the future lies in building a high skills and highly paid economy, by developing educational and intellectual structures and developing a social response.
Currently economic development is reliant on multi-national companies. What is needed is to develop an indigenous economy with some contribution from foreign direct investment.
One area where reform has not been delivered is policing. The SDLP is now paying the price for accepting the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and joining the policing board. People can see how the PSNI engage in blatant acts, carrying out very public raids on republicans under the guise of investigating "serious crime", and can see their provocations against young people leading to confrontations.
In the summer of 2005 The PSNI decided to issue charges for the annual march commemorating the 1981 Hunger Strike, saying that a 20-minute procession through a republican area was illegal.
Thirty people, including several Sinn Féin councillors, face being convicted of an offence for walking down their own street. All this because the deadline for requesting permission had been missed!
This is in comparison to the PSNI setting up road-blocks and sealing off nationalist areas to allow Orange Order marches in Belfast and other towns.
Communities in Derry are vulnerable without an acceptable police service. Petty criminals are tolerated by the PSNI and used as paid informers. Republicans and nationalists are very angry about this.
Poverty and degradation are a legacy of the conflict, Irish drinking culture, drugs, these need a multi-faceted approach. Community restorative justice structures are active in the city but there’s still a huge gap to be filled.
The voluntary community sector is very active and there is a thriving social economy with projects including community-based enterprises, a shopping centre and leisure centre set up by ex-prisoners.
More children are learning the Irish language than ever – several hundred at Irish schools and Conradh na Gaeilge is building a £2 – £3 million Irish language and cultural centre serving Derry.
But there are still interface problems. Young people on both sides take part in "recreational rioting" and in the Unionist community they are being exploited by loyalists. A Catholic family on the protestant Fountain estate and a protestant family who were friendly with Catholics have had bomb attacks.
Young people in both communities are also involved in disgraceful behaviour and this is a challenge for Sinn Féin – we need to ensure that the Fountain doesn’t feel under siege. This involves a fast response to confrontations, and trying to mobilise the communities and get people to take responsibility to end the dangers to young people and to the political situation in Derry.
The unionist community has five Democratic Unionist Party councillors and one Official Unionist Party councillor, all of them anti-Good Friday Agreement. There is no effective challenge to the rejectionists, but civic unionism – business, the church and non-political – is engaging in a very significant way with nationalists.
On the issue of marches, the Apprentice Boys of Derry have entered into negotiations with others, including nationalists, and agreements have been reached to allow marches to happen without major disruption.
There is an important lesson for other parts of Ireland that agreement can be reached through talking. But there isn’t yet a permanent long-term solution and the marches still cause major disruption for residents and businesses, and the business community is pressing for changes.
There is no significant support for "dissident" republicans in Derry. There is a range of opinion in the nationalist community on the recent changes and Sinn Féin’s policies, but there is overwhelming support for taking the process forward through political and democratic measures.
These micro-groups are not representative and are totally discredited, and they are in effect disrupting their own community.