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Authors: EU peace funding, prisoner paroles key to peace success in Northern Ireland

Authors: EU peace funding, prisoner paroles key to peace success in Northern Ireland

Paramilitary prisoners freed as part of Northern Ireland's decade-old peace accord are playing a key role in keeping peace today on the divided streets of Belfast, according to a new book published Thursday.
"Beyond the Wire" by Kieran McEvoy and Peter Shirlow, two law lecturers at Queen's University in Belfast, noted that less than 5 percent of the 450 convicts freed from 1998 to 2000 have been re-imprisoned for new offenses. By contrast, they found, many are leading community efforts to promote dialogue between the toughest British Protestant and Irish Catholic districts in Belfast.
The authors say the mass paroles _ the most politically explosive part of the Good Friday peace accord _ could have proved much more difficult if not for massive peace funding by the European Union. The continuing EU money has underpinned a wide range of community development projects in which many parolees take part.
Shirlow said Northern Ireland's experience offered a lesson to peace processes worldwide.
"As painful as it can be for victims, it is important for former combatants to play a part in transforming their communities. They need to be given a positive role, not kept in a box," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
"In other conflicts that have featured large-scale prisoner releases, the problem is that the freed men are not given anything positive to do. They return to their lives as peasant farmers or go back on the dole," he said, referring to state welfare benefits. "After a few years they're thinking: I'm getting nothing from the peace, so why not go back to war?"
Some EU-funded projects have involved organizing parolees from the Irish Republican Army, the major outlawed group in Catholic areas, to coordinate "keep the peace" activities with their one-time enemies from two Protestant groups: the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association.
When youths start to riot, sometimes by throwing stones over the high walls that still divide Protestant and Catholic areas, paroled prisoners communicate with each other by cell phone across the walls. These hard-line elders often intervene verbally and physically to get teens and young men away from these conflict zones.
"These groups of former combatants go out at night and stop stone-throwing. They're actually working together to divert young people from violence _ and it's virtually hidden from view," Shirlow said.
The IRA killed about 1,775 people from 1970 to 1997, while the UDA and UVF combined to kill more than 900 people, mostly Catholic civilians, from 1966 to 1994. All the groups were expected to disarm and disband by mid-2000 in support of the Good Friday deal, but none did. The IRA did disarm in 2005 but remains in existence, while the other groups have refused to surrender weaponry.
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Updated : 2021-04-21 01:57 GMT+08:00