Deal with disadvantage before unity, argues Senator Mark Daly

To achieve a united Ireland without a return to conflict requires northern society to resolve the problems of its communities that contain deep-seated deprivation and alienation, argues Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly.  Mark is the former chair of the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement Implementation Committee and was interviewed for the latest Forward Together podcast shortly after the release of his report, ‘Returning to violence as a result of a hard border due to Brexit or a rushed border poll: risks for youth’.

Mark explains: “This report I did in conjunction with two UNESCO chairs who are experts in preventing violent extremism and they make the point that most kids would never get involved in any of that. But that was the same during the Troubles – most people were not involved in armed conflict on either side. But it didn’t take much more than a few people to create a huge amount of harm to the whole society.

“Professor Pat Dolan and Professor Mark Brennan compiled this report, along with myself and Michael Ortiz who was President Obama’s senior policy adviser at the National Security Council on counter-terrorism, but also he was the first US diplomat appointed by the State Department on the issue of countering violent extremism.

“They put together a number of recommendations – the vast majority of the report is about what needs to be done now in those disadvantaged communities. A lot of great programmes are there, they’re being done and they are being done on a cross-community basis.  But they are simply not on the scale that is required, with the amount of money that is needed to make sure that what is termed in this report ‘the agreement generation’ – those who were born just before or since the Good Friday agreement – aren’t radicalized.”

He adds that while the cost of dealing with disadvantage and deprivation is large “the investment is going to have a huge return because not doing that investment will have very bad consequences.”

Mark warns of the potential exploitation by paramilitary leaders from both republican and loyalist backgrounds.  “So what it needs is a scaled-up approach…. history could be used as a tool against itself…. instead of using history as a way of mobilising communities to settle grievances from the past.  As we all know, even God can’t change the past.Trying to settle grievances by using force is not the way forward. What they [the authors] do is talk about using history as a way of teaching people the consequences of violent resistance. And all the consequences for ordinary people.”

Integration in schools and housing is another core recommendation in the report, which focuses on how to prevent a recurrence of violence, especially in the context of Brexit and possible further tension related to it.

The motivations of paramilitary leaders are also considered.  “It’s in the report that some of the community leaders in both communities are community leaders by day and then they’re involved in crime… Most people are doing great work, but there are some who are not. And they are giving a romanticised view. And again this is referred to in this report, the romanticised view of the Troubles.”  That, too, applies in both republican and loyalist communities, argues Mark, with paramilitary leaders recruiting young people by misreporting the past.  “Young people who have no memory of the Troubles will be exploited by adults who want to achieve their own ends and give this glorified view of the past.”  What is needed, suggests Mark, is a more objective view of the past to be put forward to undermine the paramilitary narrative.

Mark dismisses the fear that openly discussing the past will re-traumatise victims and relatives – because so many remain traumatised.   “Some of them could be suffering from mental health problems as a result post traumatic stress disorder. Alcohol and drug addiction and that then is having an effect on the next generation. So now we are having a pyramid effect where there are more and more people being affected by the Troubles, including a generation that wasn’t even born at the time.

“That’s what I’m talking about – the return on investment in mental health services is very important. But that requires structure…. you need a plan. Because policy neglect seldom goes unpunished.”

Mark adds in relation to the history of the Troubles: “The problem with the politics is that there are so many people who have so much to hide on all sides – the paramilitary sides, and the police in the north, and the south, and in Britain.”  There is, though, “no one size fits all answer” to resolve the continuing trauma of victims and their families.

Openness about the past should be matched by honest planning for the future, suggests Mark.  “One lesson of Brexit in relation to the issue of holding referendums is that you do not hold a referendum and then try to figure out the future.  That work needs to be done now, because if you don’t do that work now you are adding fuel to a tense situation and then all it needs is a spark.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.