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What Price Peace? The Belfast Agreement 20 years on

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Image from January 2019: red white and blue curb stones demark this as a loyalist area in Belfast 

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

I recently had the privilege to join a Law Masters field trip to Northern Ireland. I had few pre-conceptions when I left, but I had come to understand the 1998 Belfast Agreement, often deemed to be under threat from BREXIT arrangements, was tenuous at best, regardless of the any deal or no deal situation with Europe. Indeed, our trip to Derry had to be cancelled due to a car bomb explosion a few days before, reported in some press to be motivated by BREXIT, but more likely designed to mark 100 years since the start of the Irish War of Independence.

What became clear after long discussions with representatives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), an ex-political prisoner, and a member of the suspended Legislative Assembly at Stormont, is that Northern Ireland has been far from peaceful in the last 20 years, but the nature of the threat has changed. Furthermore, the risks of returning to the days of political conflict are dependent not only on whatever BREXIT brings, but also on the fact that there has been no effective Assembly in Northern Ireland for over 2 years, increasing the chances of a return to direct rule from Westminster. Furthermore, the complexity of the situation is considerable, with multiple groups active within discreet areas of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

There is much being discussed at the moment regarding the crime-terror nexus, the idea that criminals and terrorists cooperate, co-exist or perhaps adopt one another’s tactics in order to further their respective causes: financial gain and ideology respectively. However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that terrorists in Northern Ireland moved from organised criminal activity to support their ideological plight, a sort of necessary evil, to becoming predominately organised criminals using ideology to legitimise their activities, which include drug dealing, prostitution, money laundering, extortion, and the trafficking of fuel, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, people and firearms.

This loose alignment of organised criminals to distinct groups who were active in the conflict provides them with a legitimacy in communities, which enables them to continue with their activities largely unchallenged. Coupled with this, years of distrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now replaced with the PSNI, means that those masquerading as para-militaries, are often the communities first port of call when they are experiencing difficulties. These groups provide not only protection through a form of policing largely comprised of violence and intimidation, but also act as a pseudo-Citizen’s Advice Bureau, coaching individuals on maximising their benefit awards for example. It is well-known that these groups exert their own form of justice, such as pre-arranged shootings, which has led the Government to release a media campaign in an attempt to tackle this. We have thus reached a situation where organised criminal groups are running some communities by a form of consent as a result of a perceived lack of any other legitimate authority to represent them.

 

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Goodbye 2018….Hello 2019

no more war

Now that the year is almost over, it’s time to reflect on what’s gone before; the personal, the academic, the national and the global. This year, much like every other, has had its peaks and its troughs. The move to a new campus has offered an opportunity to consider education and research in new ways. Certainly, it has promoted dialogue in academic endeavour and holds out the interesting prospect of cross pollination and interdisciplinarity.

On a personal level, 2018 finally saw the submission of my doctoral thesis. Entitled ‘The Anti-Thesis of Criminological Research: The case of the criminal ex-servicemen,’ I will have my chance to defend this work in early February 2019, so still plenty of work to do.

For the Criminology team, we have greeted a new member; Jessica Ritchie (@academictraveller) and congratulated the newly capped Dr Susie Atherton (@teachingcriminology). Along the way there may have been plenty of challenges, but also many opportunities to embrace and advance individual and team work. In September 2018 we greeted a bumper crop of new apprentice criminologists and welcomed back many familiar faces. The year also saw Criminology’s 18th birthday and our first inaugural “Big Criminology Reunion”. The chance to catch up with graduates was fantastic and we look forward to making this a regular event. Likewise, the fabulous blog entries written by graduates under the banner of “Look who’s 18” reminded us all (if we ever had any doubt) of why we do what we do.

Nationally, we marked the centenaries of the end of WWI and the passing of legislation which allowed some women the right to vote. This included the unveiling of two Suffragette statues; Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. The country also remembered the murder of Stephen Lawrence 25 years earlier and saw the first arrests in relation to the Hillsborough disaster, All of which offer an opportunity to reflect on the behaviour of the police, the media and the State in the debacles which followed. These events have shaped and continue to shape the world in which we live and momentarily offered a much-needed distraction from more contemporaneous news.

For the UK, 2018 saw the start of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Windrush scandal, the continuing rise of the food bank, the closure of refuges, the iniquity of Universal Credit and an increase in homelessness, symptoms of the ideological programmes of “austerity” and maintaining a “hostile environment“. All this against a backdrop of the mystery (or should that be mayhem) of Brexit which continues to rumble on. It looks likely that the concept of institutional violence will continue to offer criminologists a theoretical lens to understand the twenty-first century (cf. Curtin and Litke, 1999, Cooper and Whyte, 2018).

Internationally, we have seen no let-up in global conflict, the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen (to name but a few) remains fraught with violence.  Concerns around the governments of many European countries, China, North Korea and USA heighten fears and the world seems an incredibly dangerous place. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad offers an antidote to such fears and recognises the powerful work that can be undertaken in the name of peace. Likewise the deaths of Professor Stephen Hawking and Harry Leslie Smith, both staunch advocates for the NHS, remind us that individuals can speak out, can make a difference.

To my friends, family, colleagues and students, I raise a glass to the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019:

‘Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear’ (Lennon and Ono, 1974).

References:

Cooper, Vickie and Whyte, David, (2018), ‘Grenfell, Austerity and Institutional Violence,’ Sociological Research Online, 00, 0: 1-10

Curtin, Deane and Litke, Robert, (1999) (Eds), Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi)

Lennon, John and Ono, Yoko, (1974) Happy Xmas (War is Over), [CD], Recorded by John and Yoko: Plastic Ono Band in Shaved Fish. PCS 7173, [s.l.], Apple

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