Seán Brennan, from QUB, evaluates the state of our current peace…
As the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA) approaches, much talk will focus on celebrating or condemning – in other words evaluating – our ‘peace process’.
When evaluating Northern Ireland’s experience of peace, it may surprise some to learn that our experiences are not universally viewed as a success. In fact, it would be fair to say the ‘liberal peace’ – which is what we have – is widely viewed to have failed.
That’s not to say our attempts to build peace have not had some success. They have. But as the United Nations first ‘post-conflict peacebuilding’ programme in El Salvador from 1992 shows, the ‘liberal peace’ tends to focus too much on economic development and too little on addressing the underlying causes that created the violence, or meeting the needs of victims/survivors, and those who suffered the most from the violence.
Beyond the academy, such results are seldom discussed in the mainstream media. And despite its universal application, quite often people fail to understand what peace theory or peacebuilding is about.
So, how can we expect to evaluate the GFA if we think it’s only about building relationships, and not about tackling the underlying causes that drive violence?
For such reasons, when peace theorists evaluate the ‘liberal peace’, they generally try to discover if peacebuilding has led to a ‘positive peace’ or a ‘negative peace’.
That is, researchers want to know if peacebuilding has led to the absence of direct violence, and the absence of structural violence (poverty, ill-health, etc.), which is viewed as a ‘positive peace’. On the other hand, a ‘negative peace’ is seen simply as the absence of direct violence (war or terrorist attacks).
Applying this binary evaluation to our own ‘peace process’ shows that with media reporting 30% of the workforce are not in work or looking for work and that the number of suicides now ‘outstrip’ the ‘Troubles’ death toll, it would be difficult to claim we have built a ‘positive peace’. More so, when some victims feel they have been ‘excluded and forgotten’ by those tasked with building the peace.
Yet many supporters of the ‘liberal peace’ would argue that this binary evaluation, between a ‘positive peace’ and a ‘negative peace’, is too crude, and that we should focus more on how the GFA has benefitted from liberal peace building.
This is a moot point.
For example, the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006, implemented a variant of the ‘liberal peace’, which academics call the ‘neoliberal peace’. And so in 2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin abandoned the ‘Shared Future’ policy of the UUP and SDLP in favour of a new policy, ‘Building a Better Future’, which ‘made it clear that economic growth precipitates the amelioration of a ‘divided society’.
The new Executive exercised their political power through the models and principles of a neoliberal market economy between 2010-2015. As a result, the number of millionaires in Northern Ireland increased by 40%, to 12,500. This happened even as the global financial markets crashed.
From this perspective, our ‘neoliberal peace’ provided a stable form of government from 2007 until 2017. It also radically transformed our local political economy during an ‘Age of Austerity’. And it managed to eradicate the gun from local politics, through the widespread disarmament and demobilisation of all the main paramilitary organisations that had been active throughout the ‘Operation Banner’ campaign.
Of course, as the high levels of multiple deprivation above show, in unemployment and mental health terms, we still have a ‘negative peace’.
However, perhaps economic success demonstrates that the DUP/Sinn Féin ‘neoliberal peace’ can also be quantifiably evaluated as a resounding success. ‘Realist peacebuilders’, and ‘neoliberal peacebuilders,’ for example, view the DUP/Sinn Féin ‘neoliberal peace’ as one to be lauded and celebrated. ‘Neoliberal peacebuilders’ point in particular to the £741.9 million NICVA has shown was made available between 2015-2016, to be spent on delivering services and programmes to those most in need.
Yet, this positive evaluation has its detractors. For example, Connor McCabe describes our neoliberal art of government as a ‘double transition.’ From a sectarian war to ‘peace and neoliberalism’, where the poor are getting poorer. As a result, and somewhat ironically, Audra Mitchell argues that our ‘neoliberal peace’ has actually created a ‘violent peace’. Yes, a ‘violent peace’!
So, as the twentieth anniversary of the GFA approaches, what should we make of such evaluations?
Perhaps academic peace researchers are being too crude to simply say we have created a ‘negative peace’: and a ‘violent peace’ at that!
But then again, when we see high levels of multiple deprivation, particularly in those areas most affected by the violence, and victims claiming they are being ignored, twenty years after the GFA, what other evaluation can we arrive at?
As we listen to the speeches at the forthcoming celebrations of the GFA, many will simply be happy with our ‘negative peace’, particularly the 12,500 millionaires, and supporters of the DUP and Sinn Féin, who continue to vote for a ‘violent peace’.
Yet, from a personal perspective, this ‘violent’ and ‘neoliberal peace’ is not appealing and, like other academic peace researchers, my focus has now moved away from the ‘neoliberal peace’ towards the development of a ‘post-liberal peace’.
That is, an emancipatory form of a ‘positive peace’ where those marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and communities who suffered the most from the violence can take control of their own means of producing the social care, the employment, education and self-help programmes needed to construct a better quality of life not available in a ‘violent peace’.
No doubt this ‘post-liberal peace’ is too aspirational for such a socio-sectarian society as ours. But for me, as our ‘violent peace’ appears to sustain the sectarian war by other means, there is no alternative. Perhaps others feel the same?
So, as we begin this evaluation of the GFA, discussing these types of peace may help those wise heads in the ‘sluggerratti’ to develop a deeper evaluation on our quality of peace, and whether they prefer a ‘positive peace’ or a negative ‘neoliberal peace’.
In widening this debate, we may then keep moving towards that goal of a ‘positive peace’. And begin to figure out how we address our underlying causes of violence, and ultimately stop our trees from bearing a ‘strange fruit’.
Seán Brennan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Queen’s University Belfast, School of History Anthropology Philosophy and Politics (HAPP).