David McKittrick: A painful peace without reconciliation

In Belfast, shaping up for a deal often entails squaring up to each other, and this they are doing at the moment

Northern Ireland politicians are currently absorbed in the blame game, in the welter of recriminations which traditionally follows the failure of peace process initiatives. The IRA accuses the Rev Ian Paisley of seeking its humiliation rather than any meaningful accommodation while he - never to be outdone when it comes to anathematising - calls them "bloodthirsty monsters".

There will doubtless be more hot and heavy rhetoric, despite official appeals for a period of reflection; then the acrid smoke will clear, and careful assessments will be made of how much damage has been done to the process.

Already, it is possible to believe that the peace process remains intact, and furthermore that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are not simply whistling in the dark when they say hugely important advances have been made.

Even as the IRA flatly refused to allow photographs of decommissioning, it was agreeing to the breathtaking proposition of putting its entire armoury beyond use by the end of the year. And even as Mr Paisley belligerently denounced those bloodthirsty monsters, he still slipped in some discreet subordinate clauses confirming he would sit in government with republicans if only they got rid of their guns.

The two sides, in other words, are still shaping up for an eventual deal in which they would together run Northern Ireland. But in Belfast, shaping up often entails squaring up to each other, and this they are doing at the moment. This is not a pretty sight, but rather than reflect reality it is camouflaging the extraordinary fact that militant republicanism and rejectionist Unionism, Northern Ireland's polar opposites, are doing business with each other.

This is huge stuff, but it is also a painful business, for it is peace without reconciliation. There is genuine personal pain for Ian Paisley, for example, who has sat in many homes where someone has been killed or maimed by the IRA.

He has enormous baggage to cope with and overcome. On his religious website, he thunders: "Romanists reject this light [the 'Word of God']; blindness is their duty. Become a tree, a block, a stone, an unreasoning beast, and you are a good Roman Catholic!" But his political website has a markedly different tone, with statements such as "a new settlement must be able to deliver equality of opportunity to Unionists as well as nationalists".

A west Belfast nationalist said wonderingly of this: "I could nearly vote for them myself." He was only kidding, but there is a lot less kidding around than there used to be, and much more realpolitik.

Mr Paisley used to kid himself that Catholics could be held down in an inferior political status, while republicans used to kid themselves that Unionists and Protestants were really only puppets of Britain without a legitimate independent identity of their own.

There is considerable pain around for republicans too, since many of them regard Mr Paisley himself as a monster who revelled in division and has spent a political lifetime opposing partnership and accommodation.

Many republicans have qualms about the IRA relinquishing its guns, having long believed in the old republican slogan: "God made the Catholics, the Armalite made them equal."

The physical force tradition runs so deep that the idea of an IRA without guns is causing many republicans discomfort and even trauma. The IRA used to be the republican movement's cutting edge, but the political wing, Sinn Fein, now provides an alternative form of empowerment.

The IRA has had a good run with its guns: it is a full 10 years since it first went on ceasefire, and only now is it prepared to bid a final farewell to arms. Politics has delivered so much to republicans that there is no question of a return to bombing and shooting. But even so, complete disarmament is sending tremors through republican areas, which helps to explain anxieties about the IRA being humiliated by Mr Paisley.

The pain is not confined to Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist party circles. Between them, these parties get more than half the vote, which effectively means they dominate the landscape and together will control a new administration. They are the election winners, and the unforgiving mathematics mean that the winners take all. David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party has been sidelined and looks like taking a pasting in the general election.

This leaves more than 40 per cent of voters, most of them centrists of one hue or another, looking on and feeling helpless as their future is negotiated by the two extreme factions.

The whole peace process is supposed to be suffused by the politics of inclusion, but there are many who feel excluded: there is pain here, too. Those who perhaps naively hope for a more settled, more normal, Northern Ireland are clearly in for further pain, even after a DUP-Sinn Fein deal is eventually hammered out.

A deal is expected to install Ian Paisley as first minister with Martin McGuinness as his deputy, an incredible combination. When a deal is done, there will be no handshakes between them and absolutely no hugging. For a start, DUP people do not, as a matter of principle, talk to republicans, so it will be a question of icy memos and harassed officials scurrying to convey messages from one office to another.

There will be so many unresolved issues - policing, for one - and so many decades of bad blood between the two sides that, even if the war is over, a permanent state of recrimination will exist between them.

They are prepared to go into government because each wants power and each knows it is only attainable in combination. But their coalition is going to be as fractious as this negotiation: forget cordial collegiality, this will be gladiatorial government. Some say that such an administration would stand little chance of uniting a divided Northern Ireland; others shrug that it never has been a united entity, and is never likely to become one.

It is still uncertain when the breakthrough could come. The two prime ministers will try to prevent any unravelling - Bertie Ahern has already recovered from a moment of gloom to say that maybe it could be done by Christmas.

Some of those in recent touch with Tony Blair, meanwhile, calculate that he is anxious for a diplomatic triumph to balance his less pacific activities in Iraq. The prize would not just be political but historic: he would go down as the man who persuaded the IRA to voluntarily abandon its weapons.

All this helps explain why the absence of a breakthrough was greeted this week with much disappointment but little despair: as Tony Blair said, there is a sense of inevitability about eventual agreement.

The widespread assumption is that it is now pretty much just a matter of time. The document published this week was not formally agreed by the parties, but it mapped out a new landscape which could well come into being within the next year.

It has been a long, hard struggle to get to this point, and the pain is not over yet. Yet few ever imagined what is now on offer: disarmed republicans and a power-sharing Paisley working side by side, in peace if not in harmony.

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