Northern Ireland needs the healing balm of constructive ambiguity

'This is a point where words are not enough: now it is the politics of the hammer and the anvil'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Seventies a cynical British official in Belfast used to speak with a twinkle in his eye of the government's policy of constructive ambiguity, of trying to move things along by keeping everyone guessing. Looking back now this was sometimes more of a disguise than a policy, in that it masked the fact that Northern Ireland Secretaries very often hadn't a clue what to do.

In the Seventies a cynical British official in Belfast used to speak with a twinkle in his eye of the government's policy of constructive ambiguity, of trying to move things along by keeping everyone guessing. Looking back now this was sometimes more of a disguise than a policy, in that it masked the fact that Northern Ireland Secretaries very often hadn't a clue what to do.

But in terms of the peace process constructive ambiguity has been an immensely valuable ingredient in producing a creative tension and maintaining momentum by unclear and sometimes mystifying pronouncements. The process has been studded with examples of this, including the Downing Street Declaration, the various formulations of the Hume-Adams statement and most recently the Good Friday Agreement. All these played a role in reaching the point where the major loyalist and republican groups are maintaining a ceasefire and where a cross-community government has been established.

Much of this was perplexing for many, yet it worked. In a land where 60 per cent want to be British and 40 per cent want to be Irish, and where extremes on both sides have sought to advance their cause by force, a bit of swirling grey mist can be useful in blurring issues.

The reason why the present crisis seems more threatening than most of the recurring peace process emergencies before it, is because much of the scope for ambiguity has now gone. The process has arrived at the point where more words are not enough: now it is the politics of the hammer and the anvil, the stance of "no guns, no government".

As things stand the new devolved government and most of its intricate web of new institutions will be suspended on Friday unless the IRA starts to decommission its weapons. While it is just about conceivable that the Unionist party might instead accept a firm republican promise to start disarming by a given date, there is no sign whatever that the IRA is about to deliver anything along those lines.

It is possible to imagine David Trimble himself settling for something like this, but hardly his party council. An aerial view of that council, seen from the balcony of the Ulster Hall on the night it elected Trimble as party leader, was very instructive: most of its members are elderly men, presenting a sea of white, grey and bald heads.

These men lived most of their lives under Unionist one-party Stormont rule, then lived through three decades of violence. Their political experience has thus been first one of Unionist domination and then of Unionist decline, as gradual moves towards a more equal society inevitably brought about the loss of Protestant privilege.

Many of these people seek a fresh start, nearly all of them realising that the days of Stormont and majority rule are gone forever. But there is also a strong desire to get a handle on things, to put an end to their resentful sense that republicans get everything and Unionists get nothing. With Martin McGuinness in government, with their RUC on the way out, with cross-border bodies all over the place, almost the only thing they have left is their demand for IRA guns.

Just as the Unionist council instructs Trimble to achieve disarmament or leave government, so the IRA army council tells Gerry Adams that in his negotiations he cannot offer guns. It is a fair bet that the IRA army council members also harbour a sense of loss. They have lost their long-held, cherished dream of achieving a glorious military victory over Britain, of at a stroke uniting the two parts of the island to form a 32-county socialist workers' republic.

Gerry Adams is not to be president of all-Ireland, Martin McGuinness is not to be head of the Irish army; they are not going to stand proudly to attention, as Michael Collins did, as the union jack is lowered and a republican tricolour hoisted in its place. Instead the future holds years of negotiating, and wheeling and dealing, and peace processing, with an eventual outcome very different from the traditional republican dream.

These people reckon they have already taken huge initiatives by shelving their dream and by silencing their guns. But they are not going to decommission their guns for an encore, at least not yet, and certainly not before Friday, and not in response to a Unionist ultimatum. They are not ready to concede at the conference table what thousands of British army and RUC raids failed to wrest from their grasp.

If there is some faint chance of avoiding suspension on Friday it will be achieved through the infusion of some fresh ambiguity: say a blend of promises, some unprecedented language from the IRA, perhaps mixing in the broader question of general post-troubles demilitarisation.

The IRA's weekend statement was, on the surface at least, a stiff rebuke to Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, for accusing them of betrayal. But it also had embedded in it an acknowledgement that the decommissioning issue would have to be dealt with satisfactorily: another little example of potentially constructive ambiguity.

The chances are very much against success, however, for although a week is a long time in politics, Friday seems too close and the time seems too limited for the dramatic concessions needed to avoid suspension. Mind-sets take a long time to change, and neither republicans not Unionists look prepared to cave in.

On the republican side the IRA army council has never given way to peremptory Unionist or British demands. And the stolid Protestant burghers of middle Ulster are not about to abandon their decommissioning requirement at this stage, even should David Trimble think to ask them to.

This means that everyone is glumly staring suspension in the face, with a daily more fatalistic acceptance of its inevitability. It is a dangerous tactic in that, once again, the process will sail into uncharted waters.

Suspension will severely dent the credibility of a process which has managed to produce a government that lasted less than three months, and will be a crushing disappointment following December's breakthroughs. Above all else, it will increase the dread that the mists of constructive ambiguity may come to be replaced by the fog of war.

Comments