National Unity and the Struggle for Stability: Parallels between Ireland and Sierra Leone

A Legacy of Instability

Since gaining independence from Britain on 27 April 1961, Sierra Leone has struggled to maintain the delicate balance required to achieve sustainable social and economic development over a prolonged period.

Deep-seated social, political, and economic divisions have slowed the pace of the country’s development, ultimately manifesting in a bitterly fought civil war that lasted over a decade from 1991 to 2002. In spite of the peace that has largely prevailed in the time since Sierra Leone has remained mired in a state of deep political and social polarisation that has sorely hampered the nation’s ongoing quest for stability and long-term growth.

Sierra Leone’s overall poverty rate currently stands at 57.8%, with 10.8% of its population living in extreme poverty. Child mortality remains high, while the average life expectancy of 60 years is well below the current global average of 73. Unemployment also remains a significant issue, particularly amongst young people, with food insecurity continuing to affect almost 50% of the population.

Additional areas of concern include the infrastructural development required to sustain long-term economic growth, access to education, and adequate healthcare service provision across the population at large. These concerns are only likely to grow if the projected increase in the size of Sierra Leone’s population – from almost nine million today to an estimated 13.6 million by 2050 – comes to pass.

The difficult economic conditions faced in Sierra Leone have been further exacerbated by the impact of Ebola and COVID-19, as well as the ongoing fallout from the war in Ukraine. These events, in combination with a series of other external shocks that occurred over the preceding decade or so, have severely impacted Sierra Leone’s volume of trade and access to the supply of fuel. The resulting depreciation in Sierra Leone’s currency has generated soaring inflation and increased the risk of food insecurity, with the severity of the emerging cost of living crisis creating further issues domestically.

Rising Tensions amid Calls for National Unity

After a period of relative calm in the two decades following the end of the civil war, a dispute around the results of the recent presidential and general elections held in June 2023 has led to rising tensions, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. This reminder of the fragile state of peace in Sierra Leone continues to be a cause for concern and demonstrates the clear need for continued efforts toward meaningful cross-party political cooperation.

The recently announced “Agreement for National Unity”, jointly signed by the Government of Sierra Leone and the main opposition party, the All Peoples Congress (APC), in October 2023, offers hope in this regard. The signing of this Agreement has helped bring an end to the impasse created by the dispute around the recent election results and reduced some of the simmering unease that has been building throughout certain segments of society.

While this landmark agreement offers genuine hope for greater cooperation and political transparency going forward, the turbulent nature of Sierra Leone’s political landscape dictates that caution must be advised when attempting to offer any definitive assessment of the long-term impact of this Agreement on inter-party relations.

Ireland and Sierra Leone: The Value of Lessons Learned

In this wider context, it is impossible not to note the parallels between Sierra Leone’s pursuit of peaceful, stable development in the post-colonial era and the difficulties faced by Ireland following its own separation from British rule. Upon gaining independence in 1922, the newly declared Irish Free State descended into a bitterly contested civil war, the echoes of which lived on for generations across both sides of the newly established Northern Irish border.

The Irish civil war emerged from the opposing stances of Ireland’s key political figures and the population at large on the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty and the terms thereof. This created a split in the existing Sinn Féin party ranks that would ultimately lead to the formation of Ireland’s two most prominent political parties: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; with Fine Gael falling on the side of the pro-treaty forces and Fianna Fáil on the anti-treaty side.

While the fallout from the civil war continued to affect relations between both parties for many decades thereafter; over time, these distinctions became increasingly irrelevant, as both parties’ policies and political ideologies continued to merge and evolve. Perhaps there is no more fitting example of this gradual reconvergence in Irish political life than the fact that both parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are now governing side by side for the first time in Ireland’s history, having formed a coalition government with the Green Party in 2020.

In spite of the immense difficulties faced in terms of securing social cohesion and ensuring effective political cooperation, Ireland was ultimately able to overcome these differences and achieve a level of political and economic stability that may have once seemed impossible.

The role of the EU and the benefits of Multilateralism

Ireland’s entry into the European Union, or European Economic Community as it was at the time, on 1 January 1973 marked a major step in Ireland’s economic journey post-independence. The access to the common market and the structural support provided by Ireland’s ascension would prove invaluable over the coming years. Once more, lessons can be drawn here on the part of Sierra Leone with regards to the value of its membership in the African Union and other key multilateral instruments, highlighting the clear need for further political and economic integration beyond its own borders.

Ultimately, Ireland’s continuous efforts to overcome the many social and political issues that had impeded its long-term growth, allied to the support provided by the EU and the crafting of a series of well-constructed economic policies and institutional reforms, culminated in a prolonged period of sustained economic development throughout the 1990s and into the late 2000s. Over time, this unified focus has brought about enormous improvements in Ireland’s overall development across every identifiable social and economic metric.

Hope for the Future

The success of Sierra Leone’s future development hinges on the nation’s ability to overcome its internal differences and create a united front when it comes to the much-needed social and economic progress its population hopes for and expects. Ireland’s struggles and ultimate success in overcoming the vast array of difficulties experienced in its own post-colonial history provide a much-needed reminder to the people and political parties of Sierra Leone of the possibility of achieving meaningful change over time.

Ireland’s journey from an impoverished and peripheral nation beset by internal strife and a lack of political clarity to a modern economic powerhouse characterized by its social stability and economic diversity could not have been achieved without a genuine desire for peace and a unified vision of the nation’s future. Drawing on this lived experience, the people and political parties of Sierra Leone must continue to work to ensure that the recent calls for national unity become more than a mere political slogan and instead form a declaration of the country’s unified determination to fulfil its ultimate potential.