The peace process may have stalled - but not unravelled

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The Independent Culture
NORTHERN IRELAND hasn't gone away you know: the troublesome politics of the place are slowly coming to life again after the summer doldrums, and difficult times lie ahead. Mo Mowlam will shortly, possibly today, say whether or not she believes the IRA ceasefire has been breached by the recent killing of a republican and other events such as an apparent gun-running attempt.

Having made that call, she must then signal what penalty if any should be incurred by the IRA or Sinn Fein, or both, perhaps by halting prisoner releases. Her instinct will be to resist the clamour from many unionist politicians for all the republicans to be shown the red card and sent off the field, once and for all. But whatever happens, unionists and republicans are about to be pitted against each other once again as the new political season opens. The peace process remains precisely where it stood in mid- July, which is to say stalled in its tracks.

The politicians will gather again next month, this time along with Senator George Mitchell, for yet another try. The intense June-July negotiating session, when Tony Blair and others failed despite herculean efforts, was billed by many as the last chance. That was hyperbole: September will see another determined effort to square the circle on devolution and de- commissioning.

But that failure, though not cataclysmic, nonetheless drained a fair amount of credibility and confidence out of the political system. It is therefore entirely likely that, if the Mitchell initiative fails, many will conclude that the window of opportunity has been closed.

During the summer the inability to live with each other meant that even the commemoration of the anniversary of the Omagh bomb was violated, even desecrated, by the scenes of baton-wielding and petrol-bombing in yet another marching controversy. The Omagh victims, having suffered so much, were denied a day of peace for the expression of their sorrow.

The picture is not, however, one of unalloyed gloom, for there are reasons for taking heart. This was actually the best marching season for years, certainly since the 1995 Drumcree dispute ignited and turned July into a time of annual turmoil. Those who lost their businesses in the Londonderry rioting may draw little comfort from cold statistics, but it is informative to compare this year with last.

One 24-hour period last year brought 384 outbreaks of disorder, 115 attacks on the security forces and 19 police injuries, one officer suffering a fractured skull. Petrol bombs were thrown on 96 occasions, 403 petrol bombs were seized, 57 homes and businesses were damaged, 27 vehicles hijacked, another 89 damaged.

Last year Belfast became a virtual ghost town as people stayed fearfully home with their doors locked. It all reached the dreadful climax of the deaths of the three young Quinn children, who lost their lives in a sectarian arson attack. This year there were also moments of tension but it drained away as, almost miraculously, first Drumcree and then the main 12th of July parades passed off with scarcely an incident.

This low level of trouble did not come about by accident. First, the loyal orders who do the marching may be painfully slow learners in the political and propaganda game, but they finally caught on that they could not simply refuse all invitations to dialogue. Second, the Government and others spent much time and effort persuading the Protestant orders that force of numbers and simple stubbornness was not going to work any more.

There were many meetings and much negotiation, some of it bringing loyalist marchers and Catholic residents face to face, others taking the form of proximity talks. Many of these were pretty unpleasant encounters; many were closer to confrontation than negotiation; most of them did not work. But some of them did yield useful results, and this new way of doing business helped avert the feared long, hot summer.

It would be stretching things too far to say that a new culture of dialogue has taken root, but the idea has at least been established that the first contact between Protestant marcher and Catholic objector should not necessarily take the form of an angry confrontation on a disputed street.

The greatest prize of all is that there were no marching-related deaths. Northern Ireland had a civilised summer after four appalling ones, with a refreshing lack of tension. This is in spite of the fact that the killings have not stopped altogether, and nor have punishment beatings and shootings.

The victims of Omagh may yet come to feel that the slaughter in the town was not entirely meaningless, and that some good may flow from so great an evil. To resort once again to cold statistics: in the 12 months up to and including the bombing, 69 people died violently. In the 12 months since then there have been nine killings. It is simplistic to argue that Omagh was the single reason for this dramatic fall in the death rate: momentous developments such as the Good Friday agreement had a profound effect too.

But Omagh did have a huge impact, many seeing its shocking waste of life as drawing a line under the years of large-scale violence. The opinion some observers advanced at the time seems to have been borne out: that the wave of revulsion was so overpowering that it is difficult to imagine any major group, republican or loyalist, finding it possible to wage a sustained campaign of violence again.

It is equally clear, however, that all violence has not ceased, and that a political settlement is still missing. Yet one of the key things about this summer has been the fact that the peace process has not unravelled or regressed, partly because the marching season has been so uneventful. Mistrust has increased, it is true, but the signs are that when the politicians return from the beaches they will do so to confront issues which, while no easier, are no more difficult either.

The remarkable resilience of the process has once again been evident. It survived Omagh, after all, and so many other crises, heavily battered yet somehow still intact. Nonetheless, few believe it can survive unharmed indefinitely in the absence of agreement, so the autumn session will be a crucial one.

One can never celebrate a 12-month period when nine people died and when the baton and the petrol bomb remained features of the streets. But this is not England: this is Northern Ireland, where peace seems destined to remain comparative rather than absolute.