G8 Summit 2013: Northern Ireland Playing Host Could Reignite Protests

As prominent world leaders from all corners of the globe descended upon Northern Ireland to discuss the turbulent conflict in Syria and other key global issues, a not-too-distant memory of another sectarian divide that rocketed to the world stage rises to the surface.

The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron chose the resort town of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland as host to this week’s G8 Summit in order to showcase how far the province has come since the United States-brokered “Good Friday deal” was signed in 1998 following decades of public conflict and political violence between Catholic and Protestant communities.

In doing so, Cameron is making a strong statement about the successful use of international mediation in the sectarian divide that plagued Northern Ireland, and how the tactic might prove consequential in Syria. He is also turning the world’s attention back to a community that has experienced uneasy calm over the last fifteen years; sparking worry among local and international onlookers that dormant protesters may take advantage of the global spotlight to reignite a call-to-arms or publicly protest once more. 

In fact, veiled concern from the international community has been voiced throughout the first day of G8 events on Monday as President Barack Obama and his counterparts applauded various communities in Northern Ireland for their adherence to peace while emphasizing the importance of upholding and strengthening a secure environment for following generations. 

Concurrently, images and references in the media to lingering “peace lines”, or solid or barbed barricades peppered throughout towns separating traditionally Protestant and Catholic areas, provide visual evidence of the fragility of Northern Ireland’s relative tranquility.

Against this backdrop, press conferences, open-door sessions, and one-on-one meetings are taking place between world leaders from the United States, U.K, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia to discuss international engagement with Syria, the official launch of U.S.-European Union trade talks, and other important geopolitical touch points.  

For his part, Obama’s agenda for Monday included one-on-one meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the U.K.’s Cameron, and Italy’s Enrico Letta.  Unsurprisingly, nothing ground-breaking is expected to result from these discussions. On Tuesday, Obama attended the G8 Summit plenary to reinforce American foreign policy interests before leaving for Berlin to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate and meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The key to success for the G8 Summit, the maintenance of continued peace in Northern Ireland and the way forward in Syria, may be learning how to hurdle trust issues among stakeholders on all sides. As Senator George Mitchell, the U.K.-appointed Chairman of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations put it, “the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the lack of trust.” 

One thing is certain; a lot of people are hoping this week concludes uneventfully.