In January 2002 former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson told GQ magazine that the USA, in their ‘War on Terror’, should reflect on the how the British approached the problem in Northern Ireland. In Peter’s words, the British government took the decision to ‘negotiate with the IRA through its political wing rather than to defeat it.’ More than six years after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, these words have lost much of their gloss. Northern Ireland has a long way to go before it can become the accepted model for conflict resolution across the world.
As the local parties met to discuss the restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, many were sceptical about the chances of any sort of compromise. As one Belfast newspaper put it, the parties were reconvening on ‘the road to nowhere’. After all the optimism and excitement surrounding the Good Friday Agreement – for which 72% of the population voted in favour – where did the political process come unstuck?
Tony Blair’s premiership dove-tailed with the arrival of Sinn Fein-IRA into ‘legitimate’ democratic politics. The Peter Mandelson interpretation argues that conciliation and negotiation have proved remarkably effective methods of drawing Sinn Fein into the legitimate political process; the longer the IRA is not in an active and open military campaign, the harder it is for them to go back to war. This is undoubtedly true. But it is only half of the story.
As the Prime Minister has on occasion acknowledged himself, since 1998 he has largely accepted the IRA’s definition of a ceasefire – the cessation of a direct military campaign against army and security forces, the bombings that make the news in London. The problem is that this is not the definition he sold to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum for the Good Friday Agreement. Training, recruiting, importation of arms, military targeting, intelligence gathering and punishment beatings continued apace. The occasion of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and governmental institutions was the dramatic discovery of an alleged IRA spy-ring at the centre of the new administration. As the police ascended the steps of the Stormont Assembly buildings in the autumn of 2002, the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement crumbled around them.
The IRA’s continued failure to decommission – as the Prime Minister conceded – was not only an embarrassment to the British government. More significantly for the long-term future of the peace process, it has undermined those moderate unionists, such as David Trimble, who had demonstrated that they were willing to compromise with Sinn Fein. At the last elections to take place in Northern Ireland in autumn of last year, this was confirmed – Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party finally overhauled David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists as the single largest unionist party. The reason for this was simple; if this was what the Good Friday Agreement amounted to, the unionist community was no longer prepared to accept it for the sake of accommodating Sinn Fein. In the most recent estimation, the support for the Agreement among the unionist community has declined from approximately 52% to 28%.
The atmosphere since has been tense but never out of control. There have been isolated incidents of trouble over the summer but nothing on the scale of the systematic violence of previous years. Sporadic bursts of trouble in Belfast and Londonderry occurred during some of the more contentious Orange parades and in north Belfast in September, a small group of Orange bandsmen were attacked and stabbed. As I write this, there is news of an attempted murder by suspected Loyalist paramilitaries. So while economic and lifestyle surveys suggest that the general quality of life in Northern Ireland has improved since 1998, there has been no rapprochement between Protestant and Catholic working-class communities. In some ‘flash point’ areas, relations are as bad as ever. Charges of ethnic cleansing and systematic intimidation in districts where one group is predominant over the other are commonplace.
Having said that, the parties entered these talks on the back of a period of comparatively ‘good behaviour’ from the paramilitaries. Flexing of muscles and political posturing had been kept to a minimum and had not generally spilled out into cross-community conflict. The IRA in particular kept a low profile and Sinn Fein made sure that they went into the talks making all the right noises. Gerry Adams, famed in Northern Ireland for his ‘double speak’, broke new ground in describing concerns in the unionist community about the continued existence of the IRA as ‘understandable’. At the same time British and Irish governments were peddling a relentlessly optimistic line about the prospects for a political deal and a return of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Optimistic they may have been – in the background to these developments hangs the fate of a huge political gamble. There is a school of thought within both governments that has spent the last twelve months trying to pave the ground for a new political status quo in Northern Ireland, based on the coming together of the extremes. The Good Friday Agreement was supposed to be held together by a coalition of the willing: moderates from both communities, the nationalist SDLP and David Trimble’s UUP. But the floundering of that Agreement has coincided with a pronounced political decline for both parties and the growth of Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s DUP. Whether that decline was a symptom or cause of the stilted political process is academic. The point here is that the current talks have been predicated on the assumption that Gerry Adams can cut a deal with the more extreme unionists.
Many supposed ‘realists’ believe this is possible. But let us not forget that the electoral dynamics of these extreme parties have to be kept in the equation. The DUP – for so long operating from an idealistic position on the margins of the political process – has been thrust into the centre. But it has to sell any political deal as a visible defeat for the IRA. Does anybody think the IRA is ready to sign up for that?
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein can afford to play along with this political poker, both look forward to a future of electoral gains. Over the last twelve months, both parties have been happy to accede to the political marginalisation of their moderate rivals. But they have been able to do this without putting their cards on the table. One question remains – how long can the British and Irish governments afford to play along as well? These talks may provide the answer.