Analysis | Outbidding in Times of Uncertainty: Post-Conflict Transitions and Competitive Violence
Glasgow — 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 witnessed an increasingly fragmented peace processes as multiple non-state actors and intransigent splinter groups vie for power and influence. The Irish and Colombian peace processes face increasing uncertainty as the FARC deal remains delicately balanced against social tension and the Good Friday Agreement hangs under threat from the Brexit process. In both Colombia and Northern Ireland this situation incentivizes outbidding and conspicuous displays of force as armed groups jockey for power in anticipation of a breakdown in social order.
The New IRA and Brexit Turmoil
Despite recent setbacks The Northern Ireland peace process seen significant success and a high degree of support from across the political spectrum and the sectarian divide. Political violence has fallen dramatically since the height of the conflict, although elements of crime, deprivation, and social dislocation remain. However, there are still groups on both sides who remain poised to use violence. Loyalist paramilitaries have been slow to disarm due to a continued distrust of Republicans. The IRA has mostly disarmed and committed to the peace process, but splinter groups have consistently shown their ability to commit extremely dangerous and high-profile attacks, as exemplified to the 1998 Omagh bombing. While revanchist Loyalist groups remain 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 political uncertainty. Power-sharing arrangements have broken down in Stormont and there is little hope for an end to the deadlock in sight. Daily government activities are being run by civil servants and there is a strong possibility that London will be forced to re-establish direct control — a move which would result in significant political fallout. While the impasse has more to do with corruption and mutual antipathy than the peace process itself, the long-term breakdown of power-sharing only serves to strengthen the hand of armed groups.
The Brexit process has exacerbated the sense of crisis as the prospect of a hard border in Ireland stokes fears of a return to the Troubles. There has been talk of deploying 1,000 police officers from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in case of civil unrest from Brexit which might coincide with the ever-fraught marching season. Both Unionist and Republican politicians see danger and opportunity in the Brexit process — the same applies to armed groups. Police officers and political leaders have warned since the start of the Brexit process that it would embolden armed groups who have limited support but 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 provide the occasion for violent political entrepreneurs.
The New IRA is a group formed from the merger of several vigilante and paramilitary groups. 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 gradually increased over the last few years. Although Loyalist groups have primarily engaged in punishment shooting and other killings directed at maintaining control over their own communities, Republicans have developed more sophisticated methods designed to engage in sustained political conflict. The New IRA appears to have subsumed vigilante groups like Republican Action Against Drugs and this attack signals 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 its continued piecemeal and fragmented approach, as ceasefires and Disarm, Demobilize and Reintegration (DDR) programs gradually advance between the government and various independent groups representing different sides of the conflict and social constituencies. The deal which the government made with the AUC transformed the organisation but failed to alter the nature of conflict, meaning that violence persisted throughout the country as the AUC splintered into different armed criminal and political factions rather than integrating into democratic institutions.
Colombia's historic peace deal with the FARC has received a great deal of international attention, which many hoped would signal the end of the decades-long war. However, while the FARC has mostly demobilised their armed resistance cells, the wider peace process and DDR program has stalled, creating a political vacuum into which other groups can move. President Duque has approached the deal with a lukewarm attitude, creating uncertainty over the future of the peace process. Meanwhile, the peace deal with the rival leftist ELN has hit the rocks, underlining the difficulty of conducting and implementing a complex patchwork of parallel peace deals. This perhaps explains the timing of the ELN's attack on the police base in Bogotá, as it seeks to assume the FARC’s role as the primary leftist opposition group. If the FARC peace process remains unfinished, as now looks increasingly likely, the ELN could stand to benefit by attracting disillusioned and disaffected former FARC members.
Both cases illustrate how fragmentation in the peace process can lead to violent flair-ups, particularly in the face of political uncertainty. National leaders must bring all of their opponents and stakeholders to the table. The existence of splinter groups poses a constant threat to peace-building as long as there are political gains to be made by sabotaging diplomacy. Even more crucially, leaders must avoid reneging on their government’s commitments in the pursuit of political expediency, lest they invite a return to violence. The challenge of balancing political support with the democratic demand for change — whether from Brexit or a new political leadership — must not undermine the stability required to maintain and advance the peace process in the long term. Failure to do so risks the return of open conflict and the retrenchment of bellicose mindsets that have taken decades to overcome. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity in Belfast and Bogotá remains open, but not for long.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.