Events in New Caledonia suggest any efforts to move the goalposts as set out in the Good Friday Agreement may put a still fragile peace at risk, writes Prof Dónal Hassett of the Department of History

What happens when a state abandons a core provision of a peace process of which it is the primary guarantor? The recent dramatic outburst of violence and repression on the French-ruled Pacific Island territory of New Caledonia, which has left two police and four civilians dead, offers a grim potential response.

While the roots of the current crisis lie in the much broader structural inequalities and injustices that have defined French rule in the archipelago, the fact that it was the French state's decision to diverge from the principles underpinning the peace process that triggered the unrest should remind us all how fragile peace can be.

The peace process in Northern of Ireland differs radically from that in New Caledonia in both its framework and the political and historical context that made it necessary. Nevertheless, the British government’s efforts to break with the European Court of Human Rights, a key underpinning of the Good Friday Agreement, its lack of clarity about a future border poll, and vague hints that community consent and a supermajority might be required rather than a simple majority have all raised concerns. If New Caledonia can teach us anything, it is that unilateral changes to a peace process can lead to its dramatic breakdown.

Located over 1200 km northeast of Queensland, Australia, the archipelago now known as New Caledonia has been inhabited for about 3,000 years by a linguistically diverse people called the Kanaks. While James Cook gave the territory its classically colonial name in 1774, it was only in the middle of the 19th century that the Kanaks began to feel the full force of European expansionist violence.

The French invaded in 1853 and over the subsequent decades they violently imposed their rule, exploiting the colony’s natural resources, crushing resistance by the Kanaks, and deporting over 20,000 convicts and political prisoners to a penal colony on the main island. They developed New Caledonia as a settler colony, confiscating Kanak lands, encouraging migration from France, and allowing convicts to take up farms at the end of their sentences. The Kanak population were confined to reservations on the poorest land and were subject to a special legal code that denied them the most basic civil rights. Many were coerced into forced labour on plantations or in the colony’s nickel mines.

Kanaks were finally liberated from the special legal code in 1946 and gradually acceded to French citizenship over the decade that followed. From the late 1960s onwards, young Kanak activists and allies from the island’s other communities began to campaign for economic and cultural decolonisation and the ultimate independence of the country they called Kanaky. Tensions between the pro-independence camp, largely but not solely made up of Kanaks, and the loyalists, dominated by descendants of settlers, boiled over in the early 1980s with a spate of political assassinations.

What followed was a period of conflict euphemistically known as 'The Events’. Between 1984 and 1988, the archipelago descended into a low-intensity war in which pro-independence forces established, by force, their own administration in Kanak strongholds, settler militia violently policed their strongholds with impunity, and the French state deployed extensive repressive force.

The spiral of violence culminated in April 1988 with a controversial assault by French special forces on a cave where police were held hostage by nationalist activists on the island of Ouvéa, leaving four French gendarmes and 19 nationalists dead. The horrors at Ouvéa paved the way for peace talks, resulting in the Matignon Accord that provided for a future independence referendum and better development of Kanak regions.

This was followed by the Nouméa Accord of 1998, signed less than a month after the Good Friday Agreement, establishing a specific form of New Caledonian citizenship, recognising Kanak culture and institutions, and committing to the holding of three future independence referendums. A subsequent reform in 2007 established that only those qualified to vote in 1998 and their descendants could participate in referendums and local elections, protecting the Kanaks from being submerged electorally by newcomers from France.

While the first referendum was won with relative ease by the loyalists in 2018, the second in 2020 was much closer, with independence rejected by less than 10,000 votes (53%-47%). The final referendum was scheduled for December 2021 but Kanak communities, ravaged by Covid-19 and observing traditional mourning rituals, asked for a postponement. The government in Paris refused, leading to a boycott and a completely lopsided, and in the view of many, illegitimate result.

Emmanuel Macron then appointed a leading loyalist as a junior minister in his government, reinforcing the notion that the French state was abandoning the pretence of neutrality. The recent adoption by the French Parliament of a proposed expansion of the electorate to include newer arrivals in New Caledonia, a direct contravention of the spirit of the Nouméa Accords and the letter of the 2007 reform, was the spark that ultimately ignited the powder keg of resentment.

These political choices exacerbated tensions related to the ongoing marginalisation of Kanaks, particularly acute among the younger population born after the 1988 ceasefire. A non-Kanak is ten times more likely to have a college degree than a Kanak while 46% of Kanaks have no qualification beyond the equivalent of the Junior Cert. Kanaks are more likely to be unemployed or lower paid and have worse health outcomes.

The police presence, resented by many Kanaks, is intense, with four to five times as many gendarmes per person as in metropolitan France. Although they represent 39-43% of the New Caledonian population, 90-95% of prisoners in the notorious prison of Nouméa are Kanaks. This is the context in which many young Kanaks have taken to the streets to resist what they see as the injustice of a system that continues to exclude, ignore, and violently repress them.

Both the inequalities and the coloniality of relations always were and remain far more intense in New Caledonia than in Northern Ireland. The point here is less about the direct comparability of these contexts and more about the dangers of states unilaterally abandoning the core principles of Peace Agreements in divided societies. Events in New Caledonia suggest that any efforts to move the goalposts for constitutional change as set out in the Good Friday Agreement or to breach its underlying principles may put a still fragile peace at risk.

While the French state’s repressive measures, including tacit support for settler militias, the mass deployment of armed police, and the banning of TikTok, have re-established what its representatives call ‘order’ in the archipelago, the bonds of trust and hopes for change fostered in the peace process have been shattered and the future of New Caledonia/Kanaky remains uncertain. This should be a lesson to us all.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm