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Northern Ireland's peace process is,
despite IRA's decision on arms,
still a fudge




August 7, 2001

LONDON - This is not the last tango in Belfast, whatever the hype of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein and the IRA have a marked ability to suggest, even promise, a course of action but then the actual delivery becomes a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't process.

Still, the IRA proposal made earlier this week looks like the firmest and clearest promise yet to destroy their arm caches. And common sense suggests that in the end they will act to begin real disarmament before next week's deadline, despite today's qualms by the Unionists. Not only do the nationalists have the better part of the bargain in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, everyone knows that the arms cache question is more symbolism than substance. As was shown with the bomb that wounded eleven people in west London last week dissident factions of the IRA have no trouble in making deadly bombs out of fertiliser and the international market in weapons is so fluid depleted arsenals can be rebuilt all too quickly.

We will not know until way in the future how many years it takes for a culture of non-violence and "jaw jaw", as Churchill once put it, to replace one of "war war". The peace process and the IRA truce that is part and parcel of it have gone on for seven years now. Violence is dramatically down from the height of the troubles, even counting in the bombs of the splinter movement, the Real IRA, and the ongoing street violence of the Protestant militias.

Moreover, in normal times, Northern Ireland, with its strong church culture on both sides of the sectarian divide, is one of the outstanding non-violent cultures of Europe. If you wanted to bring your teenage daughter up safely and securely this used to be a place to move to. However, over the last five years, common criminality riding on the back of the militias has started to go the way of other societies. Just as important for the future well being of Northern Ireland is whether this street criminality can be dealt with as effectively as the political violence.

The big difficulty for Northern Ireland is that so much of the Good Friday Agreement that ushered in the formal peace and joint Protestant/Catholic rule of the province was built on fudge, "a working misunderstanding", as one commentator has shrewdly put it. This enables both sides to believe the Agreement best serves their political agenda, which suggests that both sides are reading things into it which are not quite there. The longer time passes from the euphoria of the Agreement and the success of the twin referenda in voting support for it, the more those that disagree with it are able to build a plausible public case for its self-evident weaknesses.

The political agendas of the two sides are irreconcilable for one fundamental reason. The Protestants, who make up 60% of the North and who control most of northern industry and commerce, want to remain part of the United Kingdom and the Catholics want to join up as part of independent Eire to the south. The Good Friday Agreement which attempts to provide the Catholics with equitable political representation and a minority share of the offices of state is seen by a majority (albeit a slim one) of the Protestants as the basis for a good permanent solution. The nationists on the Catholic side see it only as a stepping-stone to a united Ireland.

But one achievement of the negotiations is that now neither side feels trapped in the old political forms. The government of Eire won a referendum in 1998 that renounced the south's constitutional claim to sovereignty over the north. And the Protestants have declared themselves willing to be party to all-Ireland institutions in which Britain and Eire have an equal say in making policy. This opens the doors to voluntary change rather than coerced change although it doesn't alter the fact that the two sides want two diametrically opposed things.

Yet long before we get to testing how far the nationalists can push the Protestants towards devolving increasing amounts of power to cross border institutions a modus vivendi has to be found on the outstanding issues of the make up of the overwhelmingly Protestant police and on the withdrawal of the British army. Clearly, the very fact that Sinn Fein/IRA have made this week concrete promises about getting rid of their arms and explosives caches suggests they are now much happier with the promises on these issues now made by Prime Minister Tony Blair in his demarche with the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Yet, whatever the politicians promise, reality will be governed by the levels of violence that accompany yet another provocative Protestant Orange Order march and by the number of times a dissident IRA faction let off a bomb and Protestant militias move to retaliate. Optimists will argue that having come so far the present Sinn Fein and Unionist leadership is skilled enough to defuse whatever tensions may arise. Pessimists will point to the rising electoral strength of the extremists and the province's unfailing ability to produce a continuous supply of young militants and street thugs on both sides who are constitutionally unable to miss a chance to confront the other side.

Right now the optimists have the upper hand. Before the 1994 IRA cease-fire Unionists would not be seen standing in the same room as Sinn Fein members. These days they sit at the same table and decide government policy together. What will keep them there is hope for the future. While the mainstream Protestants will never concede ground on a united Ireland they will probably be kept reasonably happy if their majority stays intact (which means watching the birth rate) and if there is continuing peace. Sinn Fein, for its part, will probably abjure the temptations of violence if the cross-border institutions function reasonably well and if they continue both in the north and the south to up their proportion of the vote at election time.

Yet at bottom all this is fudge and more fudge. It will be interesting to see, after there are another few years of relative peace and a culture of non-violence has taken deeper root, how they will take care of their fundamental and unresolved differences.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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