Northern Ireland: Healing the wounds of 30 years of conflict

When you think of places still reeling from decades of bitter conflict, Northern Ireland is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought relative peace, the paramilitaries are still active and violence remains a constant threat in many communities. Geoff Loane, the head of the ICRC's office in Belfast, is just coming to the end of a two-year mission in Northern Ireland. In this interview, he reflects on some of the challenges facing the ICRC and describes the efforts underway to address the humanitarian consequences of ongoing violence.

How long has the office in Belfast been operational and what led to the decision to establish an ICRC presence in Northern Ireland?

At the height of the unrest in the 1970s and 80s, the ICRC visited political detainees from both the Republican and Loyalist sides in what was then the Long Kesh/Maze prison. This took place on an episodic basis, never more than once a year and often much less.  The ICRC office in Belfast opened in 2011 at the request of the Ministry of Justice and other authorities who felt that we could play a significant role in assisting those affected by ongoing violence, notably those detained for use of violence against the State or membership of paramilitary organizations.

Many people are often surprised to learn that the ICRC is working in Northern Ireland and have the perception that the conflict has been over for a long time. What kind of humanitarian needs still exist?

If you have never been to Northern Ireland, it's very easy to believe from media reports that life in post-conflict Northern Ireland has simply returned to normal. It hasn't. While low in terms of fatalities, Northern Ireland accounts for approximately 50 per cent of all acts of terrorism in Europe, according to the 2015 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report.

Unresolved political issues perpetuate divisions especially in working-class communities from where the conflict was generated and fought. The physical and psychological consequences of the armed conflict still affect thousands of people. Levels of depression, alcoholism, prescription drug use, suicide and other social problems are significantly higher than in other parts of Britain.

Former prisoners and their families remain excluded from the formal workplace, insurance systems and are unable to travel to parts of the world. Families of those missing continue, decades later, to suffer the loss of their loved ones. Violence and threats from paramilitary groups still plague communities on a daily basis.

What is the ICRC doing to assist affected communities?

Since we established our office in 2011, our activities have focused on three key areas: detention, the humanitarian consequences of armed violence and the search for the missing.  Our protection staff, both resident and mobile, visit Maghaberry and Hyde Bank prisons on a routine basis. The priority is to assess the conditions and treatment of persons deprived of freedom for political reasons and who are held in special separated units for their own protection. In addition we have a detention doctor in order to improve the health system inside the prison service. In 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, described Maghaberry as "a prison in crisis" and one of most dangerous prisons in the UK.

The ICRC also financially supports and works closely with community groups who work to mediate between paramilitaries and victims of violence to remove threats. The training and support we have given to those groups has enabled them to intervene and diminish the level of violence used against young men.

Clarifying the fate of the missing remains a hugely sensitive and political issue in Northern Ireland, as in all contexts. The work with the missing is critical, and ICRC contacts can help to shed more light and information. Although our work in this area has been quite limited, the fact that we are seen by former and current paramilitary groups as a neutral and international organization has enabled progress to be made in certain cases.


What are the key concerns and challenges that still need to be tackled?

It is clear that the ongoing existence of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland is an issue that will continue to generate humanitarian concerns. I would highlight the need to address detention-related concerns as well as the use of violence against young men in particular as arbitrary punishment for "crimes" or anti-social behaviour.

We also work with our colleagues in the British Red Cross who face very different challenges, among them being the association they need to retain with the British State while at the same time developing safer access and acceptance by all communities. Although we do very limited operational work with the National Society, we aim to work as closely as possible with them.

Our recent work in relation to sexual violence is, as always, a very sensitive area; but it is one which we are determined to bring some light to. It has been a neglected issue and one that we are convinced will benefit from wider consideration and debate, and we are working towards that end. We are one of the few external organizations working in Northern Ireland. This gives us a different legitimacy than locally-based organizations who, in such a politically-charged environment, struggle or do not aspire to gain the trust of all sides.

What lessons could the ICRC learn from Northern Ireland? How does our work there compare to other contexts you have worked in?

I think that Northern Ireland offers tremendous insights into post-conflict societies and how communities repair and heal some of the damage. It has been striking to see the successes of Northern Ireland but also to see the many places where little has changed. Communities on both sides feel neglected, isolated and marginalized. This is worrying because it continues to generate humanitarian needs where organizations including the ICRC have a role to play.

My mission in Northern Ireland has been fascinating, rewarding and at times frustrating. Again, the surprise from the outset was that the situation in Northern Ireland is not resolved and that there is still an enormous amount of work to do in terms of addressing the humanitarian consequences of violence. 

More about ICRC work in Northern Ireland:



Murals in Northern Ireland