Northern Ireland’s farewell to arms? – ISN

With the IRA disarmed, Northern Ireland seems to have its best chance to implement its much-heralded 1998 peace agreement. However, mutual distrust and irreconcilable visions of where Northern Ireland’s long-term future lies will loom over what is likely to be a piecemeal return to the working parts of that peace deal.

DUBLIN — Some two months after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced on 28 July the end of its 40-year armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IMC) said the IRA had “met its commitment to put all arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation.”

Before that, Northern Ireland’s peace process had stalled. Now, the hope is that IRA disarmament will mean an eventual return to the devolved executive and assembly – the institutional centerpieces of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement – and the development of a more stable post-conflict transition.

Allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at the devolved institutions headquarters led to the suspension of those institutions in October 2002. Throughout the peace process, the IRA’s retention of its arsenal and its alleged adherence to criminality were repeatedly cited by unionists as the reason they could not cooperate with Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the IRA, in a devolved executive in Northern Ireland.

Now, as Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Mark Durkan told ISN Security Watch, “the big boulder – the refusal of the IRA to disarm – has been removed, that stone has now been rolled away.”

Less than straightforward

Still, the situation may not be so straightforward. In December 2004, the Irish and British governments presented a plan to restore the devolved institutions to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, now the largest parties on the Protestant/British/unionist and Catholic/Irish/nationalist side of Northern Ireland’s sectarian-political divide.

However Sinn Féin would not neither consent to requirements made about IRA criminality nor accede to a DUP request that some visual record be created of IRA disarmament.

The ensuing months were dominated by allegations that the IRA stole €33.5 million from a Belfast bank and that IRA members murdered a Belfast Catholic after a pub brawl in January.

With Sinn Féin being publicly hauled over the coals, as well as ostracized by their high-profile Irish-American allies in the US Senate and Congress, the party’s president, Gerry Adams, made a public appeal for the IRA to renounce military means in its campaign to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. The IRA responded with its July statement, before disarming in September.

Between July and September, three IRA men charged in Colombia with training leftist rebels reappeared in the Republic of Ireland, after disappearing from captivity in Bogota earlier in this year. This almost le Carré-like turn of events left unionists fuming, feeling that a choreographed deal had been cut between Sinn Féin/IRA, and the Irish and British governments.

DUP parliamentarian Gregory Campbell told ISN Security Watch: “The Irish government have said that it is not part of some side deal […] if they [the three IRA suspects] are not the on plane to Bogota [to server their sentences there] then we will be suspicious” — that a deal was cut between the Irish and UK governments and Sinn Féin.

Building trust

Clearly, distrust remains high. Within Northern Ireland, the prevailing feeling – on the Catholic-nationalist side – is that unionists will not commit to the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

For unionists, according to nationalists, most problematic is the “north-south” agenda, which specifies six areas of limited cross-border institutional cooperation. Nationalists accuse unionist leaders of failing to sell the peace agreement to Northern Ireland’s Protestants by either opposing it outright or misrepresenting it.

However, nationalists have their own misperceptions. According to a 2003 survey, the decline in Protestant support for the peace agreement is not based on outright opposition to cooperation with the Republic of Ireland. Protestants who voted for the 1998 peace deal but since changed their minds did so due the repeated suspensions of the devolved institutions and the IRA’s apparent unwillingness to disarm.

Unionists, for their part, distrust Sinn Féin.

While a recent Independent Monitoring Commission report published since IRA disarmament stated that “initial signs following the IRA statement are encouraging, but inevitably on this occasion the assessment we can make of the effect of the statement is rather limited”, the same source indicated that “we are looking for cumulative indications of changes in behavior over a more sustained period of time”.

The unionist position that counts is that of the DUP.

“We need to see they [the IRA] have remained out of business, that all the crime, all the recruiting has ended,” Campbell told ISN Security Watch.

Another IMC report is due in January. Provided the findings point to IRA inactivity, pressure will then likely be placed on the DUP to begin negotiations with the UK and Irish governments, and with Sinn Féin.

However, present indications suggest that the DUP will wait for yet another IMC report on the IRA, most likely in April 2006, before it is sufficiently reassured.

Upcoming elections

A general election is scheduled for the Republic of Ireland sometime before mid-2007. A real possibility exists that Sinn Féin could gain a sufficient number of seats to enable it to act as a junior coalition partner in government — if other parties renege on their opposition to forming a government with Sinn Féin.

Ireland is currently led by Fianna Fáil, historically the largest political party in Ireland and itself an offshoot from the old Sinn Féin, which led the campaign to oust British from Ireland between 1916 and 1921, when independence was secured for the part of Ireland that now comprises the Republic of Ireland.

At the annual Ulster Unionist Party UUP conference on 22 October, party leader Sir Reg Empey said in his address that “Republicans are increasingly focused on their role in Dublin, and it is quite possible that in 18 months time an Irish government could be in office propped up with Sinn Féin support”.

“[…]This would drastically increase the risk to unionists, which is why our present powerlessness is so dangerous,” he continued.

The four main political parties in Northern Ireland are either nationalist or unionist. Sinn Féin and the SDLP want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland in an all-island state, while unionists – the DUP and UUP – wish to retain the union with Great Britain.

Thus, there are irreconcilable differences over what the 1998 peace agreement means, what the peace process means, and what Northern Ireland’s long-term future is.

Many unionists feel, as Empey’s comments suggest, that the momentum of the peace process lies with the nationalists.

The SDLP recently launched a publicity-cum-policy campaign dubbed “North-South Makes Sense,” while on 24 September, Sinn Féin held a public rally in Dublin, with the slogan “Make Partition History”.

Neither campaign generated much public attention, apart from derisory comments about Sinn Féin’s hijacking of the global development agenda’s “Make Poverty History” campaign for sloganeering purposes.

More practical may have been Irish Finance Minister Brian Cowen’s speech at an investment conference in Northern Ireland on 25 October, citing the benefits of cross-border measures in infrastructure and investment policy.

Unionists remain supportive of all-Ireland initiatives where they have a non-constitutional connotation. However, there are more glaring signals to unionists.

The recent re-routing of a parade away from an nationalist area in Belfast, which led to large-scale rioting, was indicative of a peace process that, in unionist eyes, has become a parade of concessions to Catholic-nationalists.

Therefore, many unionists distrust London almost as much as Sinn Féin, feeling that the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone too far in granting concessions to the IRA.

The announcement on 27 October that an amnesty will be granted for IRA fugitives has been greeted with anger by unionists.

To many unionists, the peace process is seen as facilitating nationalism, and the eventual unification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. This is despite the Irish Republic renouncing its territorial claim over Northern Ireland as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement – which is also an international treaty between the United Kingdom and the Republic.

Moreover, the peace agreement enshrined the principle of consent, which means that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot be altered unless the majority of its population votes for such an outcome.

In other words, given that Protestants (and therefore unionists) are a clear majority in Northern Ireland, its position in the UK remains secure. Unionists have not sold this core outcome of the agreement to their supporters, hence Protestant disenchantment with the peace process and a rise in support for the ostensibly anti-agreement DUP.

To unionists, concessions made by nationalist – such as the principle of consent – are seen as academic, while concessions made by unionists – such as on the make-up of the police service – are viewed as tangible.

In contrast, nationalists view police reform as a basic civil right, and the Irish governments’ abandonment of the territorial claim to Northern Ireland meant the removal of a communal or national right, as a necessary peace-making concession to unionists.

Constructive ambiguity is part of the 1998 agreement, designed to be flexible enough to allow two conflicting aspirations for Northern Ireland’s future. However, this ambiguity is exacerbated by conflicting interpretations of what the agreement ultimately means for Northern Ireland’s future, and that will doubtless persist in the next phase of negotiations aiming to restore devolution.

A slow transformation

With no constitutional change likely or possible in the meantime, Northern Ireland will have to deal with its own internal issues, both in terms of dealing with the legacy of a divided society and violent conflict, and in terms of creatively developing policies in areas like inward investment.

“Both governments should tell the parties to be creative and proactive, to demonstrate what their policies would be, rather than just come to the governments with a big shopping list,” SDLP leader Mark Durkan told ISN Security Watch.

Irrespective of how the political deal-making pans out over the next few months, Northern Ireland is a relatively segregated and polarized society. The peace process has catered for a range of post-conflict political normalization measures in a range of areas, such as police reform, demilitarization, inter-community relations, human rights, victim support, socio-economic equality, and parade dispute arbitration.

While none of these require the back-up of Northern Ireland’s suspended assembly and executive, they do require a much greater degree of socio-political cohesion than exists at present if they are to contribute to a transformation of relations between the two main communities in Northern Ireland. Part of the problem has been the overt politicization of issues such as victim support and equality legislation.

The equality agenda – ostensibly meant to ensure that the basic civil rights abuses, perpetrated by the then one-party unionist state in Northern Ireland against Catholics/nationalists, do not recur – has been pushed by Sinn Féin throughout the peace process.

Unionists generally regard the equality agenda as a governmental sop designed to meet Sinn Féin demands.

A similar story pervades with human rights. Coupled with the recent demilitarization measures taken by the British government in response to the IRA’s moves to end its campaign, unionists remain suspicious of these conflict transformation programs.

Thus recently, the British government appointed Bertha McDougall, a widow of a former policeman killed by the IRA to head a new Interim Victims Commission. Sinn Féin claimed that this would lead to a “hierarchy of victimhood,” whereby those affected by IRA violence counted for more than those affected by loyalist or state violence.

The point scoring involved here shows a pervasive zero-sum mentality in Northern Ireland politics. In this sense, each micro-issue is taken to reflect broader politics and society at the macro-level.

It is rare for consensus to emerge on the meaning of or operation of apparently neutral concepts such as rights, victims, etc. which should benefit both sides of Northern Ireland’s ethnic divide equally.

The “outcome” in each case, even if this outcome is just the announcement of an appointee to a particular commission, is seen as a win or loss for one side or the other.

This begs an important question: If there ever is a successful restoration of devolution, will Northern Ireland political parties be able to transcend their ethno-national demarcations to deliver effective governance to Northern Ireland’s people?

Perhaps the one thing that can be predicted is that long-term projections about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, based on unionists fears and nationalist expectations, will provide a running subtext to political dealings in the immediate future.

But what that means for the near term is anyone’s guess. And that is surely appropriate, given that in Northern Ireland there is a saying about politics that goes: “If you are not confused then you don’t know what you are talking about.”

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