Impassable impasse?

As the Northern Ireland peace process lurches into another crisis, PAUL DIXON asks, what next?

When the IRA announced its ceasefire in September 1994 it was always difficult to see what kind of agreement could be reached between loyalists and republicans. The propaganda war and real (physical) war between unionists and nationalists over the years has created a gulf between people’s expectations and a politically realistic settlement. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement could have been quickly sketched out on the back of a match box in 1994 (it was very similar to the settlement of 1973/74), the problem was bringing parties and people to such a compromise and making it stick.

There had been no shift in public opinion towards moderation before the 1994 ceasefire, either in opinion polls or voting behaviour. In fact there had been some appalling violence, created partly by the uncertainty which accompanied attempts to bring Sinn Fein into the peace process. Loyalist terrorists were killing more than the IRA, fired by the belief that the Union was being betrayed.

During the peace process the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party have attempted – with varying degrees of success – to drag their supporters towards an accommodation. The decommissioning issue has been there from the start, even before the first ceasefire in 1994. Contrary to republican claims, the issue was raised by both the British and Irish governments. However, over the years, both governments allowed the issue to slide in the interests of accommodation. Decommissioning was supposed to be a prerequisite for all-party talks. Then the original Mitchell report in 1996 favoured some decommissioning in parallel with all-party talks. In 1998 Tony Blair led unionists to believe that decommissioning would take place before republicans entered government.

Seismic shift

In the summer of 1999 Tony Blair attempted to spin the parties in Northern Ireland into agreement. In The Way Forward document the two governments wanted the UUP to support the transfer of power and the establishment of the executive in return for assurances that IRA decommissioning would follow shortly after. Blair claimed that there had been shifts within the republican movement which represented an “historic and seismic change in the political landscape”. There would be decommissioning within days of devolution and weapons would be handed over within weeks.

Unionists – suspicious after Blair’s failure to deliver on assurances given at the time of the Good Friday Agreement – felt that Blair had offered no guarantees about decommissioning or evidence of a “seismic shift” in republican thinking. David Trimble offered to “jump together” with Gerry Adams – the UUP would sit in the executive if the IRA simultaneously decommissioned. Power was devolved to the assembly and executive, but the UUP boycotted the procedure and the DUP refused to nominate any members, so there was insufficient cross-community support for the institutions to work.

As The Times commented: “Having felt duped by the referendum promises Unionists were not going to allow themselves to swallow soundbites again.”

In November David Trimble took a leap of faith and entered government with Sinn Fein on the understanding that the IRA would make a start on decommissioning. This was probably the only way he could have won the support of his party for entering government. It was expected that the republicans would decommission after power had been devolved. However, the “seismic shift” in the republican movement that Blair perceived last summer has not resulted in the surrender of any weapons. And Trimble’s leadership of the UUP would probably have been destroyed unless devolution had been suspended.

The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon has asked the vital question: will the IRA decommission and, if so, when?

This is not to underestimate the problems facing the Sinn Fein leadership. Gerry Adams has also had difficulty in sustaining his leadership of a notoriously fractious republican movement. Security sources have in the past reported that it is among the grass roots – and particularly in South Armagh and South Down – that the Sinn Fein leadership have had most difficulty in persuading republicans to pursue the peace process. What is of concern is that recent reports have suggested that even in the Sinn Fein leadership there are those who do not see the need for decommissioning.

Where do we go from here?

There are several options.

  • Trimble could jump again into government with Sinn Fein.

However, without a clear timetable on decommissioning the likelihood is that he would lose the support of his party and the prospects for the Good Friday Agreement would deteriorate rapidly.

  • The IRA could decommission some weapons or explosives.

This could be done in response to serious British demilitarisation which has already been publicly suggested. The British government would be able to resurrect devolution and the Unionists could re-enter government with Sinn Fein. This may well provoke a substantial split in the IRA with significant numbers of republicans – particularly in hardline areas – picking up the gun and restarting their bombing campaign in Britain and Northern Ireland. The Provisionals would want to minimise any such split. Such a campaign is unlikely to have significant popular support among nationalists but may be able to sustain itself for some time. The Provisional IRA might attempt to police such a breakaway – there is some evidence that they intimidated the Real IRA into ceasefire after the Omagh bombing – and this could result in serious intra-republican violence.

  • Sinn Fein could leave the executive and form an opposition to the executive in the assembly.

Eamonn McCann has made this suggestion – the IRA would not have to decommission any weapons but the assembly would be able to continue. The hope would be that over time the question of decommissioning would cease to have political importance. It may be difficult for Sinn Fein to sell this strategy to the grassroots because it leaves republicans without any share of power.

  • The ‘pan-nationalist front’ (Sinn Fein, SDLP, Irish government, US government) could dump Sinn Fein.

The SDLP would then enter a cross-community government with the UUP. There is no indication, yet, that the SDLP would be willing to do this (although the SDLP would want every alternative avenue to be seriously pursued before they considered this path). The problem might be that the IRA would re-start the armed struggle but the benefit would be a working executive with support among majorities of both nationalists and unionists. However, a similar power-sharing arrangement in 1974 failed.

  • The unionists could be coerced.

The unpopularity of unionism means that this is always an attractive option for British and Irish politicians. The demise of unionism has been regularly predicted throughout ‘the troubles’. This is part of the propaganda war designed to convince the British to stand up to or facing down the unionist veto. Notoriously English politicians have failed in their attempts to coerce unionists. Their threats and ambiguity about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future have regularly undermined moderate unionism and provoked a violent loyalist response. Coercion failed during the first peace process 1972-74 and again after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, when unionist mobilisation was far greater than anything British ministers had anticipated.

The violence which has surrounded the marching season, particularly at Drumcree, is a reminder of the danger that Northern Ireland could explode into all-out civil war. After the ‘Seige of Drumcree’ in 1996, the Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew was forced to admit that his assumptions about the moderation of people in Northern Ireland was misplaced. “For my own part, and I think for a great many people, the wish had been father to the thought that on each side ancient fires of hostility and fear had greatly diminished. They had not.”

Paul Dixon is Senior Lecturer in Politics & International Studies at Kingston University, London. He is author of Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace (Macmillan, 2001).

1 Comment

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