A happy ending for Ulster

Breathe it softly, but the signs in Northern Ireland are pointing to a way out of the minefield of sectarian hatred and violence. At last, says David McKittrick, a pathway is being cleared that could lead to genuine peace in our time
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Much of the Northern Ireland body politic might currently best be described as bemused, as both players and observers struggle to come to terms with the extraordinary events of recent months. They are also grappling with the biggest question of all: can there be peace?

The question is a huge one, dependent on so many permutations, personalities, forces and future events. The path ahead is, almost literally, through a minefield strewn with potential paramilitary and political crises. There will be many fraught moments.

But when all factors have been weighed, and all bets hedged, the answer to the question is: yes, there can be peace in our time. It seems too much to hope that there will be harmony, integration and trust, for many years yet, but there can be peace.

Equally, there are no guarantees, and it is as well to acknowledge the negatives and obstacles in the way. This is, after all, Northern Ireland, which for more than a quarter of a century has stood as an international metaphor for violence, religious bigotry and political intractability.

The IRA ceasefire came as a surprise to most, and no one can predict with complete confidence that it will last. Even if it does, fringe republican groups such as the INLA and Continuity Army Council wait in the wings, ready to pounce on anything that can be presented as a betrayal of traditional republican ideals.

On the extreme Protestant side, the loyalist ceasefire may have lasted almost three years, but its stated terms are highly conditional, much more so than those of the IRA. It has also proved a highly imperfect ceasefire, since the major loyalist groups have broken it to carry out several killings. They refrained from publicly admitting responsibility for these, while London, anxious not to have their political representatives from the Stormont talks process, turned a Nelsonian blind eye. In fact, loyalists have been responsible for seven deaths in the last seven months.

The loyalist paramilitary underworld also has its own equivalent of the INLA and CAC, the Loyalist Volunteer Force. This small but dangerous breakaway group, which has already killed two people and has staged prison protests, could provide a focus for disgruntled dissident loyalists who may conclude in the months and years ahead that too many concessions are being made to republicans.

On both sides, in other words, the traditional terrorist groups remain out there, their arms un-decommissioned, and with smaller and more militant rivals hovering in the background.

The sheer longevity of the conflict has produced a society all too familiar with the gun. The number of men who are or have been in prison for murder approaches 1,000, while 10,000 or more have served time for other terrorist- related offences. Thousands more have simply never been caught.

On the legal side of the violence equation, the number of local men who are or have been members of the heavily armed security forces probably exceeds 50,000. Such official resort to the gun may have been necessary, but it is clearly not healthy for a society to have so many imbued with the notion that resolving conflicts is achieved with firearms rather than with politics.

To that feeling can be added all the other negative sentiments stockpiled in this damaged community; bereavement and segregation are responsible for the bitterness, anger and hatred generated by the Troubles which have augmented the existing repositories of historical recrimination.

Given all that, where is the hope for peace? The answer lies essentially in the proposition that the Troubles have provided not just misery, but also an education. The argument is that lessons have been learned the hard way, and that such lessons are often the most valuable of all.

It has been established that both sides have developed self-replicating paramilitary structures, with a flow of recruits ready to replace those imprisoned or killed. Neither the IRA nor the loyalists were actually compelled to go on ceasefire: both could have fought on.

Yet both seem to have been affected by the widespread feeling that, while more years of terrorism were possible, they were unlikely to advance the cause of either. Both sides proved their ability to kill and to suffer losses; yet along the way the feeling took root that neither would achieve eventual victory.

The air became permeated with a sense of mutual unbeatability. And the stalemate and stand-off gradually gave way to an understanding, in many quarters, that if victory was not in prospect then the logic pointed to some sort of negotiated settlement. To this was added a palpable sense of relief that while the war could go on for ever, it might not have to, and that a retreat from terrorism, if it could be effected without loss of face, was highly desirable.

As with so much else of the political agenda since the late Sixties, the peace process developed from the Irish nationalist side. It was therefore hardly surprising that it was regarded with much suspicion and scepticism by Unionists.

It still is, though it has had a deep effect on the thinking of many Protestants. Those most opposed were senior Unionist politicians, some of whom were clearly more comfortable dealing with the IRA's terrorism than with Sinn Fein's political gambits.

But Unionist political denunciation of the peace process does not tell the whole story of the present Protestant state of mind. Most senior loyalist paramilitants, for example, now approve of that process: this does not mean they are about to buy rounds of drinks for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but the years of imprisonment and loss of colleagues have produced an empathy with the republicans. This has translated into a willingness to talk to Sinn Fein.

Most of the Protestant population seem to favour engagement in talks together with Sinn Fein. Although many believe that the republicans should continue to be held at one remove, this is in itself a remarkable state of affairs, since in the last five years no major Unionist political figure has advocated negotiations with Sinn Fein.

Thus Protestants at large have become more flexible than their political leaders, and willing to contemplate steps that are without precedent in their history.

It also seems to show that something of the philosophy behind the peace process, principally that a settlement which excludes a significant section is unlikely to work, is taking root.

The trick in the negotiations ahead may be to amplify this still controversial premise into one of the central foundations of a new political disposition. Sinn Fein is not about to get a united Ireland; Unionism is not about to get a strengthened union with Britain. The only logical common ground would therefore seem to lie in an equality agenda, in which the rights of all were protected.

But there is a long way to go before it comes to that. The political talks are due to reconvene in Belfast on 15 September. Assuming the IRA ceasefire holds, Sinn Fein will be there, leaving David Trimble to decide whether or not to take the Ulster Unionists into the same conference room as Sinn Fein. The betting is that he will not lead his party into the same room, but the betting is also that he will not walk away from the process.

The immediate outcome could therefore be proximity talks, a form of dialogue at a distance. But the talks will go ahead, in whatever format, Tony Blair having laid down that he wants agreement by May of next year. Few believe that he will get it, but by May it should be apparent whether real engagement is taking place.

If, however, the talks remain bogged down in the all-too-familiar procedural trench warfare, the Government may resort to the option of thrashing out a new agreement with Dublin, to be presented to the parties at a later date. Nobody wants to talk up the idea that the talks are doomed to failure, but it has to be pointed out that so many previous rounds of inter-party talks did not succeed. (The sole exception, in 1974, produced an agreement that lasted less than six months.)

But the optimists contend that this time it could be different. For one thing, the strength of Labour's majority and the fact that it is likely to be in power for at least two terms gives Tony Blair an authority that John Major lacked. For another, all the previous negotiations took place in an atmosphere of continuing violence; the expectations of the two communities were low, and those parties who exhibited intransigence suffered no electoral penalty for doing so.

This time, the theory goes, there could be a new magic ingredient: peace. Assuming that the ceasefires hold, there will be progressively more confidence in them, and steadily increasing hope that they can be maintained. In these circumstances the parties might experience more and more communal compulsion to stay at the table and do real business. The public mood would be against walk-outs and obstructiveness, since these could endanger the peace.

Conflicts of nationality are notoriously difficult to settle, and there is still no precise answer in sight to the question of how to reconcile a tradition which wants to be Irish with another which is determined to stay British. Huge questions remain on how far Unionism and nationalism may be prepared to compromise.

But five years ago few dreamt that it could get as far as this, with ceasefires in place and talks in prospect. There will undoubtedly be much turbulence ahead, but there could also be a powerful new sentiment from the grass-roots. This is a feeling that while their Unionism and their nationalism are important, so, too, is the necessity of hammering out the type of deal necessary to ensure that the war does not break out all over again.