David McKittrick: Ulster's hopes for peace are fast disappearing

'Unionists and nationalists remain locked in a template of fierce completion rather than cooperation'

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There is a particular quotation that generally produces groans from students of Irish history because they see it as the stalest of clichés – having been reproduced, as it has, in so many books and newspaper articles concerning Northern Ireland. Winston Churchill was describing the aftermath of the first world war, yet the American attacks give his words a new freshness and relevance. Here it is:

"The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world.

"But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

So it is today: a new international order may be coming into being, but back in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone the same dreary issues – arms decommissioning and the inability to live together – are still being rehearsed and recycled. The American attacks offer some sense of proportion: while the Irish troubles claimed just short of 3,700 lives, the American attacks killed almost twice that number in a single day.

While it is still the case that the troubles appear to be drawing to a close, the short-term looks particularly bleak for the vital task of underpinning the peace process with an agreed political settlement. Unless something turns up, and it had better be soon, the Belfast Assembly and other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement look headed for cold storage. There may be fewer killings, but Unionists and nationalists remain far apart, locked in a template of fierce competition rather than co-operation.

The American bombings will have an impact on the problem, but so too will a string of other factors, which in combination amount to a bewildering swirl of factors. While the integrity of the quarrel is still intact, its exact dispositions have been shaken to a remarkable degree in the course of the summer.

For a start the general election in June changed the political landscape, boosting Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein as it weakened the SDLP and David Trimble. Since then John Hume and Seamus Mallon, who have headed the SDLP for two decades, have both announced they will be stepping down.

July brought Trimble's resignation as First Minister, with a flurry of talks which brought new IRA language on decommissioning that was seen as significant but insufficient. Then came news of the IRA's Colombian adventure, with the arrest of three Irish republicans there. The IRA has since said none of its members were involved in training or military co-operation, but has offered no detailed explanation of what exactly was going on.

In the meantime Northern Ireland struggled through a dreadful summer marked by several killings, but most of all by a great many riots and disturbances. The poison came out most of all in the Ardoyne school dispute, where in a hate-filled atmosphere loyalist protesters tried to stop Catholic girls getting to school. Although that dispute has largely disappeared from the headlines, a large-scale security operation needs to be mounted each day to get the girls and their parents to and from their school. On many nights rioting continues, inflicting many injuries on police.

In Ardoyne, violence has become the norm. On Sunday afternoon, for example a group of children, some of whom looked as young as five, could be seen leaving their playground. They moved on to Ardoyne Road to shower two passing army jeeps with bricks and stones, then returned to their play. The jeeps drove stolidly through the hail, being careful not to knock down any of the kids, and went on their way. The children did not get overexcited by it all; it was pretty much a matter of routine. A number of adults were not far away, but none of them intervened.

Such is childhood in Ardoyne; such is the reality of life in a place where most Protestants and Catholics hate each other, and many of both also hate the security forces. It is also a metaphor for the wider political scene, in that many are determined to carry on the conflict either on the streets or through the politics of confrontation.

There has though been progress on policing, at the macro level at least, with Trimble, Paisley and Hume all signing up for the new Police Board that is to supervise new policing arrangements. But Sinn Fein are refusing to join them, which means there is little sense of any historic new breakthrough on the issue.

The effects of all these developments are still working their way through the system. They clearly amount to significant changes, but so much has happened so quickly that their exact consequences remain unclear.

One thing is, however, very obvious: the Protestant and Unionist community has lost faith in the Good Friday Agreement, and in all probability would not mourn its loss. Only half of them ever supported the accord in the first place, and it is now doubtful whether even a quarter still believe in it.

The north Belfast disturbances have deepened the Protestant sense of nationalist advance at their expense. The story in that district is one of Catholic demographic expansion and Protestant retreat. The Ardoyne school protest, an attempt to draw the line, produced only a major public relations defeat for the loyalist cause.

David Trimble's moves to pull his party's ministers out of the local government have caused dismay in some quarters, but not within Unionism itself, where the settled overall judgement is that the agreement has been a vehicle for delivering a stream of concessions to republicans and nationalists.

The departure of Unionist ministers, which looks inevitable within the next few weeks, means that the devolved government will grind to a halt. The peace process has coped with such setbacks in the past, but this time it could be different. Once Humpty topples off the wall, getting him back together again would require convincing large sections of Protestant opinion to undergo a dramatic conversion, to renew their faith in the accord and give it another chance.

Only one thing could do that, which is the decommissioning of IRA arms on a large scale. The atmospherics are so bad at the moment, however, that even this might not be enough to effect a transformation. What is clear is the strength of the simple equation that no guns will mean no government.

This is where the outside world comes in. The Bush administration was already talking tough to Sinn Fein, pushing for an explanation of what was going on in Colombia. After 11 September, its line is going to be even tougher.

There may be one last chance for the peace process. Perhaps the World Trade Centre attacks will help convince the IRA that the time for decommissioning has finally arrived. The hope is that the carnage of New York can help save the peace process in Ireland and that, to quote Churchill again, the new world may yet come to the aid of the old.

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