From 1969 to 2018: Relocating historical narratives of displacement during 'the Troubles' through the European migrant crisis.

Author:Browne, Brendan Ciaran


One of the major consequences of war and inter-communal violence is the mass displacement of civilians (Nafziger et al. 2000). From the outbreak of 'the Troubles' in Northern Ireland, the internal displacement of civilians from across the sectarian divide became a familiar occurrence. So too were the instances of civilians in the north seeking sanctuary in the adjoining Republic of Ireland. Since the onset of the Northern Ireland peace process, issues pertaining to the legacy of the conflict and how best to address the complex needs of victims and survivors have dominated academic and practitioner discourse. Despite much innovative thinking, there has been an inability or reluctance to formally implement a comprehensive programme that addresses the diverse needs of those victims and survivors who were affected. The impact of the conflict was far reaching, with the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors suggesting that almost one in three people were affected indirectly. However, within the myriad options for dealing with the past, including a vast array of scholarly work, there is little to no mention of those who were violently displaced, or, in everyday local parlance, 'burnt out'. (1) In fact, it is fair to say that the issue is almost completely absent from scholarly analysis of 'the Troubles'. When we consider that anywhere between 45,000 and 60,000 civilian families were displaced as trouble erupted in 1968, an 'enforced movement of population without parallel in Europe since the Second World War' (Connolly & McIntosh 2012: 58), it is perhaps even more perplexing that there have not been more calls for proper acknowledgement of the impact of being displaced on victims and survivors or for their loss and suffering to be carefully considered within any future transitional justice framework.

In 2018, the legacy of this displacement remains pronounced with segregation and division a feature of the 'post-conflict' landscape (Shirlow 2006; Shirlow & Murtagh 2006). In 1999, around 98% of Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) estates were segregated according to religious designation (Shirlow & Murtagh 2006: 60) and in the intervening 20 years this number has only fallen marginally, standing at around 90% in 2011 according to the NIHE. The legacy of enforced displacement and subsequent entrenched segregation looms large in the 'post-conflict' era. Issues pertaining to a lack of youth social mobility, limited inter-communal contact and the sectarianising of space in urban centres across Northern Ireland remain. Furthermore, 'post-conflict' Northern Ireland continues to be a society whereby instances of forced displacement, the result of ongoing sectarian intimidation, continue to exist (as examined in more detail below).

The Northern Irish experience of mass displacement due to internal conflict, of course, is not unique. Moreover, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2017), an unprecedented global refugee crisis, the result of, inter alia, a hybrid mix of global interventionist politics and violent intra-group conflict (Yazgan et al. 2015), has erupted. This has, in turn, resulted in the forced displacement of some 65.6 million people. Of those displaced, 22.5 million refugees have subsequently sought asylum in a variety of countries. Approximately 55% of those seeking asylum come from three of the worlds most troubled regions: South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria. Of those displaced, a paltry 189,300 refugees have been resettled.

In 2015, Ireland--a country whose history suggests a bias towards migration as opposed to refugee assimilation--pledged to open its borders and resettle 4,000 men, women and children fleeing conflict and persecution. Since then, praise and criticism have been meted out to the presiding Irish government in equal measure; praise, for instance, came from ex-UK Foreign Minister David Milliband who used the Irish example as a weapon to chastise other foreign governments, most notably that of US President Donald Trump. Criticism came from within Ireland itself, including from Fianna Fail foreign affairs spokesperson Darragh O'Brien who referred to the Irish response as 'shameful'. (2) Despite failing to problematise adequately issues around the violent displacement of its own civilians in the past, Northern Ireland pledged support when called upon to respond to the growing global refugee crisis and to act as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and violent conflict. Belfast, perhaps somewhat ironically given the issues mentioned above, even received 'city of sanctuary' status, resulting in the establishment of a 'city of sanctuary group' on 22 June 2013. (3)

Rather than critique the Irish response to the migrant crisis per se--such analysis has been usefully provided by others (Pestova 2017)--this article considers the current intellectual energy generated around responses to the present refugee crisis on the island, an appropriate moment for introspection on dealing with the past. As noted above, transitional justice discourse that has sought to deal with the past has been largely silent on the phenomenon of internal displacement across the island of Ireland as a whole. Despite it being accepted that widespread displacement was commonplace at the onset of the Northern Irish conflict, there has been next to no work done on the long-term impact that this had on the everyday lives of victims and survivors, and there has not been any meaningful attempt to situate the experience of these specific victims within a broader transitional justice framework. Unsatisfactorily, analysis of the legacy of conflict-related displacement in Northern Ireland has largely been relegated to the narrative form (Side 2015).

While the response to the refugee crisis across the island of Ireland as a whole has been limited, we would argue that this is perhaps not particularly surprising in a society that has yet to fully problematise, acknowledge and perhaps compensate victims and survivors of historical displacement during the conflict in and around Northern Ireland. If Northern Ireland remains a place where the displacement of local civilians continues to be a residual issue of the historical conflict, then it is more than nal've to suggest that Belfast (as the major urban centre) will be capable of living up to its billing as a city of sanctuary.

Transitional justice and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

Primarily viewed as a set of processes for fragile societies to consider following the end of a period of sustained conflict, transitional justice includes the development of mechanisms designed to redress the legacy of violence (see Browne 2017; Stan 2009). These mechanisms have commonly included the creation of truth commissions (Hayner 2010), reform of corrupt institutions, reparations for victims and survivors, among other bespoke, context-specific processes. The result, as noted by Browne (2017), has been the development of an

expanding volume of transitional justice literature, a byproduct of an increasingly uncertain and warring world ... focused on case study examples of specific mechanisms employed in post-conflict or transitional areas to stabilise and engrain a fragile peace, (p. 488) Despite failing to address adequately the legacy of its violent past, Northern Ireland has been somewhat of a transitional justice laboratory. Since the signing of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's transition--from seemingly intractable conflict to fragile peace--has been remarkable; yet, at times, the progress achieved has been undermined by legacy issues. Disagreements on this often politically charged obstacle regularly have plunged the fragile Northern Ireland executive into crisis. Whether these disagreements centre on findings revealed during state-led historical enquiries, problems surrounding the policing of culturally sensitive commemorations or the ongoing existence of paramilitarism in marginalised communities, the issue of the past in Northern Ireland has an ominous omnipresence.

The agreement embedded into legislation the development of a new form of consociational governance (at the time of writing, currently suspended) helped rebrand historically controversial incarnations of the state, including a more widely accepted Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), (4) and brought into play an equality agenda for all citizens, considered (rightly or wrongly) (5) to be unparalleled globally. While not calling into question the successes of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, it could be argued that failing to set in place a framework for addressing the legacy of violence has, in some senses, been its downfall.

Attempts at dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, described by some as 'piecemeal' (Bell 2002: 1097), in fact pre-date the agreement itself, with discussions on issues pertaining to, inter alia, victimhood, reparations and justice, taking place before any political deal had been reached (Bloomfield 1998). In addition, grass-roots victims and survivors groups have played a prominent role in advancing the needs of those most directly impacted. From 1998 onwards, a seemingly endless flow of academic research (Bell 2002; Connolly 2006; McEvoy & McGregor 2008) on the residual issues that ought to be considered has ensured that a 'dealing with the past' industry has been maintained. (6) Lawther (2014, 2015) has noted the various approaches that have been adopted in Northern Ireland to date in an effort to deal with the legacy of the past. These include recourse through the court system (i.e. through judge-led historical enquiry), internal and external police enquiry (i.e. the re-opening of 'cold-cases' and the creation of a specific Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to investigate alleged instances of state-led corruption), community-based projects aimed at...

To continue reading

Request your trial