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What happened to Northern Ireland's peace?

Northern Ireland's peace process was rocked again last week, following the arrest, questioning and release of Sinn Fein's President Gerry Adams in connection with the killing of a woman in 1972.

Almost as soon as

Gerry Adams

was arrested last Wednesday night, artists started painting a new Republican mural on the Falls Road in West Belfast. The image is of a hirsute, bespectacled Sinn Fein president in a blue suit. Beside him are three words: peacemaker, leader, visionary.

Gerry Adams

was released from Antrim police station on Sunday afternoon. It is thought that charges against the Republican leader are "very unlikely." For his supporters, Adams will remain the leader and peacemaker depicted on the Falls Road, but his arrest in connection with the killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville in 1972 has further polarized an already divided society.

Fragile peace?

Peace talks between Nationalists and Unionists broke down without an agreement early in the New Year. In February, the devolved power-sharing government at Stormont stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that Republican paramilitaries on the run had been mistakenly issued with pardons by the British government.

Northern Ireland

has changed enormously since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that ended the 30-year long Troubles, but the peace process is far from complete, says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster.

"We don't have the army on the streets, we don't have regular funerals, we don't have protests, we don't have bombs going off, so at that basic simplistic level there has been an absence of violence [and] this has been progress.

A picture showing police vans and incident tape in Northern Ireland after one of the former IRA leaders is shot

Challenges still exist and fractures continue to affect day to day living.

"However at a more complex level, of where society is now, I think there's a number of challenges that still exist. There are a number of fractures within the peace and political process, around identity and history, which continue to affect day-to-day living in Northern Ireland."

Becoming increasingly divided?

Northern Ireland is arguably a more divided society than it was in the 1960s, before the sectarian conflict broke out, says Steven McCaffery, editor of the Belfast-based investigative website the Detail.

"We are a society that is very deeply traumatized by recent conflict, and we are also a society that has arguably a greater number of people within the population who have a history of association with violence," he told DW.

Part of the problem, says Byrne, is that the political process that created a power-sharing devolved government at Stormont, outside Belfast, "was fudged from the beginning with questions about dealing with the past, parades and symbols of identity kicked into the long grass."

"If you build a house on sand, eventually that house will start to creak, and that house collapses at the points whenever pressure's applied to it."

In and out of government

Republicans opposed to the peace process remain a constant threat to security in Northern Ireland. However, much of the pressure that has been applied to the fragile peace has come not from gunmen seeking a united Ireland but from Loyalists, Protestants who want to maintain the union with Great Britain.

While Sinn Fein, the party aligned to the Irish Republican Army, has become a permanent fixture in government, political parties affiliated with Loyalism have struggled to make any electoral inroads. In December 2012, Loyalist protests broke out across Belfast after the city council voted to fly the Union flag on designate days instead of all year round. Tensions are expected to rise again this summer during the traditional Protestant marching season.

A picture from West Belfast showing high walls and fencing alongside one of the marching routes.

"We are a society deeply traumatized by recent conflict"

In Rathcoole, a 1950s housing estate on the outskirts of Belfast where curb stones are painted red, white and blue and murals of Loyalist gun men look down from walls, community activist Phil Hamilton says that many Loyalists feel let down by the peace process.

Buying out of the Good Friday agreement

"People see Sinn Fein working outside the Good Friday agreement and people are saying to me 'what has Loyalism achieved by signing up to the Good Friday agreement?' And these are serious, serious questions. There are more and more and more people who are not buying into the Good Friday agreement," he explains.

Working class Loyalist communities are often characterized as those who have lost out since 1998. But the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland are still overwhelmingly Catholic and both communities share many common problems: unemployment, alienation, and substance abuse. Disillusionment is palpable on both sides of the ‘peace lines' that separate Nationalists and Unionists in parts of Belfast.

A prosperous city in the time of Empire, Belfast suffers from many of the same issues that scar post-industrial cities around Britain. The 2008 financial crisis hit Northern Ireland hard.

Future challenges

"The challenges aren't different from the challenges of Liverpool and Glasgow and Manchester and Newcastle," says Duncan Morrow, a former chief executive of the Community Relations Council and a member of the cross-community Alliance Party.

The core problem, Morrow told DW, is a lack of a shared political vision - in governmental hallways in Belfast, Dublin and London.

"There is a sense that on the Unionist side, in particular, there has been a withdrawal from any notion of a shared future. On the Nationalist side, I think the project has always been about still retaining the notion of a united Ireland."

Riots in Northern Ireland in August 2013.

"This is not about reconcilliation..we have to find practical solutions...for a shared future."

Haunted by the past

The arrest of Gerry Adams last week brought the issue of Northern Ireland's past back into the present. For Duncan Morrow, Northern Ireland cannot afford to ignore the legacy of its vicious sectarian conflict any longer if it really wants to move forward.

"This is an economic issue of the first priority; this is not an out-there type of issue. And the problem is always treated as reconciliation - nice work, nice people doing nice things. No, it is actually saying we have to tackle the systemic issue which treats being Nationalist or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant as some kind of marker that decides how you treat people or where you live with people or where you go."

"We have to name it, address it and find practical solutions [to move past the problems] so it doesn't happen in the future. That is what a shared future is [all] about," he concluded.

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