The visit by President Biden to the Republic of Ireland was an unqualified success. Large welcoming crowds braved inclement weather and greeted him at every location, and Joey, as he referred to himself on several occasions, responded in kind.
It was in stark contrast to his visit to Belfast where awkwardness and exclusion were the order of the day. He spent just 18 hours in the six counties, half of them asleep, and his uncomfortable tête-à-tête with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, over coffee, shone a light on a “special relationship” between the two countries that clearly needs some TLC.
Indeed that meeting between Biden and Sunak led to one US official to good-humoredly describe it as more bi-latte than bilateral. The coldness between the two, evident in the body language in officially released photographs, suggested that one of Vladimir Putin’s infamous long tables would not have been out of place.
Mr. Prime Minister, it’s great to see you again.
I’m glad to be here and mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which has brought peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland.
I look forward to working together to unlock Nothern Ireland's vast potential. pic.twitter.com/w2Q9sGseqR— President Biden (@POTUS) April 12, 2023
What the visit to the North also highlighted was the current state of both the peace process and the political process. The former, despite recent challenges, continues to work for the people of Northern Ireland, but the latter in its current state is broken beyond repair and has been for some considerable time.
While the peace and the political process are interconnected, they are two distinct processes with one key difference being their focus. The peace process is primarily concerned with ending the violence and conflict in Northern Ireland and establishing a peaceful resolution to the long-standing tensions between the nationalist and unionist communities.
On the other hand, the political process has focused on the establishment of a stable and functioning government in Northern Ireland where political parties can work together to address the issues facing the region.
The shooting of Detective John Caldwell, a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), in February in front of his and other children at a sports complex in Omagh, Co Tyrone, posed the gravest threat to the peace process.
Further unrest from dissident republicans was forecast for Easter Monday when real concern was expressed by the PSNI that attempts would be made to draw police into serious public disorder which would then be used as a platform to launch terrorist attacks on them. A major anti-terrorism operation ensured that while petrol bombs were thrown, the expected terrorist attacks did not take place.
Another serious threat to peace in the North at present comes from feuding loyalist gangs, with a bitter turf war having broken out in the North Down and Ards area between two rival drug gangs operating under the banner of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
Dozens of attacks have taken place in the locality involving petrol bombs, damage to property, physical attacks and threats against the lives of several gang leaders. It culminated with a group of 50 men wearing balaclavas and in full view of watching police brazenly marching into a residential estate and clearing it of all murals, placards, and flags belonging to their rivals.
Update: An image provided to @beltel tonight of some of the 50 strong crowd that descended on Weavers Grange; seen here removing a UDA sign from the wall. https://t.co/5e7iC0oPDV https://t.co/JPgTcJdBUa pic.twitter.com/Gfr9kJVUnh— Kevin Scott (@Kscott_94) April 6, 2023
The show of force appears to have worked and the drug trade is now back under the control of an East Belfast-based gang. While the inaction of the PSNI in this instance raised questions among the broader public of who exactly is in control of these loyalist estates, the answer on the ground was very clear: the paramilitaries.
In the words of Ulster Unionist politician Mike Nesbitt, “The problem is that we’ve got these criminal gangs that are lining their own pockets, intimidating communities, and exercising coercive control.”
This is all happening as the ramifications of the Brexit decision by the UK are beginning to hit home at grassroots level. Charities and community groups across the North are being forced to cut services as EU funds are being tapered off.
Historically, they have relied heavily on the European Social Fund, approximately £40 million per annum, targeted at creating jobs, especially in disadvantaged communities. The UK replacement fund of £57 million over two years leaves a huge shortfall.
So, for instance, a women’s center in Ards and North Down, the area at the center of the drug feud, has been told that £900,000 funding it received from the EU will not be replaced.
It’s a similar situation across the region with vital community services being lost in vulnerable communities. In such situations, the first port of call is generally the political system, but this is where the continuing impasse surrounding Stormont is really hitting home as all decisions are now being taken in Westminster.
The governance structure put in place by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) can truly be described as Lanigan’s Ball, as first Sinn Féin steps out, then steps back in again, leaving the Democratic Unionists to now step out. It all leads to stalemate, frustration, cynicism, and a political vacuum that the dissidents in Derry try to fill and the paramilitaries in Ards are filling.
We are fast approaching the anniversary of the Stormont elections in May 2022 and still no movement on even electing a speaker, a decision that meant no invitation could be extended to President Biden to address the Assembly.
The Irish and British governments need to urgently address the serious flaws in the political system. Allowing individual parties a veto over democratic decisions, which may have been necessary to gain acceptance of the GFA in 1998, now needs to be addressed.
The GFA is a complex political agreement and the veto power was a key feature as it allowed all parties to have a say in the decision-making process and was designed to ensure that no community was left behind or excluded. However, the provision that was designed to ensure that no one political party or group can dominate decision-making or exclude others has now led to deadlock on a number of occasions.
Ending the veto power of political parties would require a careful and inclusive renegotiation of the GFA, with the involvement of all parties and stakeholders in the peace process. But it is something that needs to be done. While the peace process and political process are diverse, they are interdependent.
This week saw the gathering in Belfast of many of those who were instrumental in securing the GFA in the first place, led by former President Bill Clinton. 25 years ago, they showed great courage, determination, and ingenuity to get the deal across the line.
President Biden laid it on the line when he said in Belfast that democracy in Northern Ireland needs champions now. Sadly, at the moment it is difficult to see where they will come from.
*This column first appeared in the April 19 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.