Northern Ireland History 2001One certainty would run through Northern Ireland history during 2001 and that was that the future of any negotiated settlement would always be uncertain. Posturing and at times defiance on both sides of the political divide made for an uneasy period and the best way I can describe this was as a political football.
Conflicts were being kicked around almost at will. In early January and February of 2001 there was yet again a stalemate as each political party tried to gain the upper hand. Constantly they turned to both the British and Irish governments when there seemed little sign of any movement for those politicians unwilling to yield any ground.
David Trimble, the leader of the Unionist Party had taken his stance on decommissioning and the IRA and Sinn Fein had taken theirs with neither willing to negotiate any further. It was in this climate that Tony Blair the British Prime Minister and Bertie Ahern the Irish Prime Minister came once again to Northern Ireland in March 2001. An IRA spokesperson laid the blame for lack of movement with the British government with respect to all the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The IRA then released various statements saying they were willing to once again enter negotiations. Like all things in Northern Ireland politics this tit for tat blame game continued on until John Reid the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suspended the Assembly again in August. This caused uproar within the Nationalist community as they accused the British government of giving in to the Unionist demands for full decommissioning. The Unionists had not been happy with the IRA statement that it was willing to enter talks with the Chairman of the decommissioning body.
Around this time the IRA were accused of sending three people to Columbia for training. The Unionist people grew ever more suspicious and the IRA denied this claim and so it continued in stalemate until finally in September 2001, the IRA announced that they had completed the first traunch of decommissioning.
Once again flashes of school children attempting to go to the Holy Cross Primary School in Ardoyne in Belfast once again filled the pages of the World's press. It probably could only happen in Northern Ireland that a bunch of kids trying to go to school could become the central point for sectarian bigotry. There had been an Orange parade in June and at that parade some rioting had taken place.
The Unionist people in that area were then putting up flags and bunting and claimed they were attacked by nationalists throwing stones. As a result of this then people from the Nationalist Ardoyne area were attacked with stones and bottle when they were taking their children to a primary school which had to pass through an area that sat on the Nationalist/Unionist dividing line.
Stand offs took place over the next couple of days as children went to school under the protection of the PSNI. I have seen many things happening in this small country over the years and despite the numbness I have to most troubles, this for me was a new low.
I simply see no reason, justification or even the slightest morsel of sense in bringing a bunch of 4-11 year olds into any type of danger whatsoever.
Later that night widespread rioting broke out with petrol bombs, bricks, stones and bottles being fired at each other and the PSNI attempting to maintain some type of control and keep the rival groups apart. Shots were fired during this rioting and blast bombs were used. The Good Friday Agreement seemed a very long time ago and yet again the politicians who had left a vacuum had that quickly filled with rioting and violence.
Somethings did change though with the army presence starting to disappear and with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) changing its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. (PSNI)
To an outsider looking in this may seem petty and even a stupid thing to squabble about, but the reader should understand that even something that appears simple has deep underlying historical tones. The Unionist people had always regarded the RUC as their police force and at the start of the troubles this police force was 98% Protestant and assumed to be Unionist.
The Royal referred to Her Majesty the Queen and the Ulster to the Province of Ulster. Catholics and Nationalists on the other hand loathed the RUC as this was the police force who had harassed and arrested them for many years and were at the bidding of the Unionist governments at Stormont Castle.
This reform of the RUC was therefore welcomed by Nationalists and despised by the Unionist people. Many Unionists called it a betrayal and any movement away from links to the English Crown continued to make that section of the population nervous and afraid of betrayal by the English government.
Nevertheless those changes went ahead with new uniforms and badges and is still in place today. Part of this new agreement was that Catholics were now actively encouraged to join the PSNI and positive discrimination was used to do this and it worked to a certain extent. It was indeed a difficult time in Northern Ireland history.