Politics of the Peace Process

Owen Bennett reviews the Irish peace process at the 2005 Desmond Greaves Summer School and gives some thought to future developments

Owen Bennett

THE IRISH peace process developed within the wider historical context of Irish politics. Indeed it wasn't so much of a peace process as more like a continuation of the national struggle by different means. It was primarily a product of the evolution of the republican movement, which in the 1980s, began to develop a mass political base in the north. Before this, republicans were mostly isolated individuals and tended to have a narrow vision of things, and saw the northern problem simply as a military contest between the IRA and the British army.

The emerging Sinn Fein leadership began to see things differently - in particular for the need for the primacy of politics over militarism. Alliances were developed with the SDLP and the Dublin government which led to the Hume-Adams agreement.

But by the time of the 1994 ceasefire, this evolution was by no means complete, and there were two viewpoints existing side by side. So on the one hand some republicans were talking about a "new phase of struggle" and that "only the combined forces of Irish nationalislm" could defeat the British, while others stuck to the traditional view that "only" armed struggle could do this.

However the last thing the leadership wanted at this delicate time was for any antagonistic divisions to emerge, so when the ceasefire was established, it was convenient to let the traditional militarist viewpoint to predominate. This meant that the political agenda of the peace process was submerged. The movement began to behave not as if it was entering a "new phase of struggle", but as it was coming to the end of the "old phase" - the armed struggle - and that all that had to be done now was to sit down with the British to negotiate for some sort of settlement.

Too much importance was put on negotiations with the British, and republicans didn't seem to be aware that the real value of the peace process was in the alliances which had been built and in the growing popular support for Sinn Fein and nationalism in general.

If republicans could not see the real value of the peace process, the British could. The British were alarmed at the dramatic transformation of the political landscape in Ireland and were horrified at the spectacle of the Dublin governemnt and the republicans moving closer together. So they used the negotiations the republcians had demanded for no other purpose that to put pressure on them and the peace process in general. And this is the origin of the decommissioning issue, which has been a destructive element in the peace process ever since.

This led to the collapse of the ceasefire, with the bombing of Canary Wharf. Opponents of the peace process in political and media circles who had urged the need to "stand up to terrorism" now said that this was "proof" that republicans were not genuine about peace and that the whole business was a con-job. However the hardline attitude they called for and which the British governemnt carried out actually helped install a new republican leadership committed to "terrorism". The political leadership who were trying to move republicans away from "terrorism" were undermined.

The victory of New labour in1998 meant the removal of the destructive influence of the Tories, but their legacy, the decommissioning issue, remained.

Blair had dropped this demand as a condition of entering all party talks which led to the Good Friday agreement and the creation of the Northern Ireland assembly. But when the assembly began to meet the unionists raised decommissioning again, insisting on it before an executive could be set up with Sinn Fein in it.

After a year of stops and starts the executive was eventually set up in December 1999, but Trimble - under pressure from hardline elements in his party - imposed a deadline for decommissioning to start by February the following year. This was a beginning of a pattern of Trimble unilaterally imposing conditions and deadlines outside of the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

The next three years followed the same agonising trend.The executive was suspended and restored twice, and there were two acts of decommiossioning. Finally the assembly itself was suspended after allegations of IRA spying at Stormont, and a third act of decommissioning in October 2003 failed to satisfy the unionists and the political process has remained in limbo ever since.(Bennett's lecture was delivered before the IRA's final act of arms decommissioning)

This period also saw a decline in support for the Good Friday agreement among the unionist population, reflected in the decline in the UUP and the rise of the DUP. This contradicts the predictions that some of us made (including this writer) that the peace process would weaken hardline unionism, and we have to ask why.

Some commentators have blamed Trimble for poor leadership, and for pandering to the right-wing of his party. However, he didn't have much choice, and if he hadn't "pandered" to them he would simply have been defeated sooner.

Trimble found himself in a political cul-de-sac, one which he had helped to create. But once in it there was not much he could do to get out of it. He had helped make the decommissioning demand a central issue initially to cause mischief in the peace process. Then when he found himself in the situation of having to do business with the republicans, his enemies used it to make mischief with him. And he was forced to work to their ultimately destructive agenda.

Others on the right have blamed republican activity for undermining the agreement. However even if all the allegations made against the IRA were true, this activity did not amount to much. It was of a residual nature and certainly not directed against the unionist community. The real violence came from the loyalists. During all the argy-bargy over decommissioning, there was mayhem on the streets of the six counties - almost nightly pipe bomb attacks on Catholic homes, sectarian murders, incursions into nationalist areas by hordes of loyalists, as well as the Holy Cross protests where children were pelted with missiles and even blast bombs. This was nothing less than a violent expression of the discontent within unionism, discontent orchestrated by hardline unionist politicians.

And what was the cause of this discontent? That the IRA hadn't decommissioned enough weapons?!!

The problem was not Trimble's leadership or lack of it, but in the dynamics of unionism itself and its tendency to lurch towards violent oppostition when confronted with the prospect of peaceful progress and anything which benifits nationalists. The real object of unionist fury was not the lack of decommissioning, but the Good Friday agreement itself. Decommissioning was the weapon used to try to wreck it.

So the central problem re-emerges. The historical task is not to bring republicans into the democratic process as all the pundits would have us believe but to bring the unionists into it.

The recent IRA statement calling a halt to its armed campaign should have eased the situation. But the problem appears again. When the IRA do something bad it is greeted with unionist outrage. But when they do something good it gets the same reaction!

The IRA statement was recieved with hostility by the DUP. This is because it put them at a political disadvantage.

The psychology of loyalism requires a bogyman, and it dislikes having its illusions punctured. One of the strangest features of the peace process is that republicans advance every time they compromise, or acede to the demands of their opponents. This should be borne in mind in any future dealings with the DUP to leave them with nothing to hide behind.

Despite the shortcomings of modern democracy, its ethos is still light years ahead of the the politics of unionism. Unionism is a historical relic and has no place in the modern world. Sooner or later the modern world will bear down upon it. The political forces which gave rise to unionism and sustained it no longer exist. The British government wants more stable and presentable allies in Ireland and psychologically it has begun the process of withdrawal.

The DUP will now come under the same pressure as the UUP, who were originally unco-opereative until the Blair government got them by the scruff of the neck. There was a taste of things to come recently. After the IRA statement, Paisley went to see the secretary of state Peter Hain. On the way in Paisley said he was going to tell Hain that there would be no power-sharing with Sinn Fein. After he came out, the tone had changed and there was no mention of this. Perhaps Peter Hain told Paisley something!

The DUP may realise the historical dilemma of unionism. Ultimately unionists are powerless. If they insist on being subservent to Britain they will have to do what the British tell them. The situation for the DUP is now transformed, because it is in the "hot seat" and its role is no longer to snipe from the sidelines. Not only that, but there is no one now on the sidelined to snipe at them. In a way, unionism as a whole has come to the end of a road, and the most recent indications are that the DUP are coming to terms with the new reality - Paisley has said he would shake hands with republicans under the condition that they fulfilled the demands Blair made of them.

The DUP may also want to relflect about the Good Friday agreement which they despise so much. For they have used it to get where they are today. The D'Hondt provisions were originally designed to protect the minority nationalist community from domination. The DUP are still a minority within the six counties. If they argue aboout the virtues of majority rule (and they have been very quiet about this lately) the same argument can be used against their present position - that they will have to accept the verdict of the majority of people who support the Good Friday agreement.

The future holds more problems for unionism than republicanism.

The above article is an abridged version of Owen Bennett's lecture to the 2005 Greaves School. It will be replaced by the full text once this becomes available.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-01-12 11:23:40.
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