Outbidding in Times of Uncertainty – Post-conflict transitions and competitive violence.

Large bombings, only days apart, in Bogota and Derry/Londonderry have put paid to any notions of a simple peace process in either country. These events show that the two very different conflicts display many of the same dynamics. Both countries have seen increasingly fragmented peace processes, with multiple non-state actors and intransient splinter groups vying for power and influence. These are also peace processes facing times of intense uncertainty, with the FARC deal delicately balanced and with the Good Friday Agreement under threat from the Brexit process. In both Colombia and Northern Ireland, this situation incentivizes outbidding and conspicuous displays of violent capabilities as armed groups jockey for position in anticipation of a breakdown in social order. 

The New IRA and Brexit turmoil

The Northern Ireland peace process has in many ways been a success, with a high degree of support from across the political spectrum and the sectarian divide. Political violence has reduced dramatically from the height of the conflict, although problems of crime, deprivation and social dislocation remain. However, there remain a number of groups on both sides who remain prepared to use violence. Loyalist groups have been slow to disarm due to a continued distrust of Republicans. The IRA has largely disarmed and committed to the peace process, but splinter groups have consistently shown the ability to commit extremely dangerous and high-profile attacks, as exemplified to the 1998 Omagh bombing. While revanchist Loyalist groups are largely motivated by distrust and internal power struggles, attacks by dissident Republicans are clear attempts to spoil the peace process.

The latest attack comes at a time of extreme uncertainty. Power-sharing has broken down in Stormont, with little end to the deadlock in sight. Daily politics is being run by civil servants, with a strong possibility than London will have to re-establish direct control, a move which would have significant political fallout. While this impasse has more to do with corruption and mutual antipathy than the peace process itself, the long-term breakdown of power-sharing would only strengthen the hand of armed groups.

The Brexit process has created an even more acute sense of crisis, as the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland stokes fear of a return to the Troubles. There has been the talk of deploying 1000 police officers from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in case of civil unrest around Brexit which could coincidence with the always fraught marching season. Both Unionist and Republican politicians see danger and opportunity in this process, and the same applies to armed groups. Policeman and political leaders have been warning since the start of the Brexit process that it would embolden armed groups, who have limited support but the high capacity to commit violence. As well as the symbolism involved in battles over borders and sovereignty, the potential for social unrest stemming from either Brexit or the continued failure of Stormont to deliver effective governance could open up opportunities for violent political entrepreneurs.

The New IRA is a group formed from the merger of several vigilante and paramilitary groups, and this latest attack seems designed to entrench their position as the foremost armed group within the Republican camp should large-scale violence become a viable tactic. Violence on both the Loyalist and Republican sides has been gradually increasing over the last few years. While Loyalist groups have primarily engaged in punishment shooting and other killings directed at maintaining control over their own communities, Republican’s have been developing more sophisticated methods aimed at engaging in sustained political violence. The New IRA appears to have subsumed vigilante groups like Republican Action Against Drugs, with this attack signalling the ability and intention to return to the violent struggle for Irish reunification.

Colombia’s Stalled Peace Process 

The situation in Colombia is even more fraught, with widespread violence and a large variety of active armed groups. A major challenge of the Colombian peace process is that it has been piecemeal and fragmented, with ceasefires and Disarm, Demobilize and Reintegration (DDR) programs being negotiated between the government and various independent groups representing different sides of the conflict and different social constituencies. The deal which the government made with the AUC transformed the organisation but didn’t transform the conflict, meaning that violence persisted throughout the country with the AUC splintering off into different criminal and political factions rather than engaging meaningfully in democratic politics.

There has been a lot of attention paid to Colombia’s historic peace deal with FARC, which many hoped would signal the end of the decades-long war. However, while FARC has largely demobilised as an effective organisation the wider peace process and DDR program have stalled, creating a vacuum into which other groups can move. President Duque has been lukewarm on the deal, creating a situation of deep uncertainty. Meanwhile, the rival leftist ELN’s peace deal has also hit the rocks, underlining the difficulty of conducting and implementing several parallel peace deals. This perhaps explains the timing of the ELN’s attack on a police base in Bogota, as it seeks to take over from FARC as a primary leftist opposition group. If the FARC peace process remains unfinished, as now looks increasingly likely, the ELN could stand to benefit by picking up disadvantaged or disappointed former FARC supporters.

Both cases show how fragmentation in the peace process can lead to violent flair-ups, particularly in the face of political uncertainty. Political leaders must attempt to bring all of their opponents to the table, as the existence of splinter groups will pose a constant threat to peacebuilding efforts. Even more crucially, they must avoid reneging on their commitment’s in the pursuit of political expediency, least they invite a return to violence. The challenge of balancing the democratic demand for change, whether through Brexit or a new political leader, should not undermine the consistency needed to keep a long-term peace process on track.

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