David McKittrick: Cautionary lessons from Northern Ireland

'The Protestants like the peace but most of them do not much like the peace process'
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The Independent Online

The turmoil in the Middle East has led to comparisons with the Irish peace process, many lamenting that the Israelis and Palestinians have been unable to construct something along the lines of the Good Friday Agreement. Few would dispute that great progress has been made in Northern Ireland; just about nobody wants to go back to the bad old days. Yet the process has not delivered certainty, still less harmony, and things are anything but settled.

The big question, as to whether the advances are irreversible, may not be capable of answer for a decade or so. In the meantime, the limitations of even a successful peace process are becoming clear. Politics may be pulling ahead of paramilitarism, but everyone has learnt the hard way that ceasefires are not absolute things, and that paramilitary groups do not simply fade gracefully away.

They remain dug into their communities, often with a fair amount of localised support, their very existence proof that many on the two sides of the divide retain the darkest suspicions about each other. Most of their members are inactive: they are no longer out there on the streets on a nightly basis. Instead they are now regarded as the pike in the thatch, a prudent insurance policy tucked away just in case they should be needed in the future.

An exception is north Belfast, where rioting can still happen on a nightly basis, essentially because local territorial disputes take precedence over the peace process. The three main flashpoints – Ardoyne Road, Tiger Bay and Whitewell – are some distance apart but all have a common denominator: the fact that there are too many Catholics and not enough Protestants.

In each case a one-time Protestant majority has decreased both numerically and in economic terms. Many Protestants have gone, leaving the districts with a high proportion of widowed old dears together with tough, heavily tattooed men trying to hold the line.

What they are trying to stop is a Catholic population that is both younger and more numerous. They are so numerous in fact, with such overcrowding in Catholic areas, that some are prepared to move into homes in dangerous, bitterly disputed areas. Most of the rioting can thus be attributed to a mini-Stalingrad, street-by-street struggle over places such as Ardoyne Road, Halliday's Road and Robina Street. On TV it looks like mindless violence, and for some of the drunken youths involved it is, yet there is that deeper purpose to it.

Where the dispute overlaps with the overall peace process is in the sense of Protestant loss, for Protestants and Unionists feel they are losing out on almost every front. They like the peace, but, as someone said, most of them do not much like the peace process.

This is largely because Sinn Fein seems to be politically rampant. The republicans have a rising vote, offices at Westminster, prospects of growth in the Republic. In the last election they overtook the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party whose new leader, Mark Durkan, has yet to demonstrate that he can rebuild the party now that John Hume has gone.

Republicans also still have the IRA, which may have carried out the break-in at Special Branch offices. Now they have started talking about a united Ireland, a prospect that really alarms Unionists. In Protestant politics there is division and depression. There is a profound and almost universal Unionist belief that republicans and nationalists continue to extract maximum concessions from the process, very often at Unionist expense.

Unionist politics have always been imbued with pessimism – some would argue they are founded on it – but that sense is particularly strong at the moment. In electoral terms, this translates into a widespread belief that in next year's Assembly elections David Trimble's Ulster Unionists are going toget hammered by Ian Paisley and other nay-sayers.

Mr Trimble did himself no good with nationalists recently when he described the Irish Republic as a "pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state". Many in Dublin who had wished him well regarded this as a bewildering and gratuitous insult and have turned against him. His crucial problem is that he has yet to come up with a compelling argument that would change the overall Unionist sense that the process is damaging totheir interests. If he does not, a process that Protestants reject is unlikely to survive.

Up close, then, the Northern Ireland peace process is laced with uncertainties and littered with potential crises. It remains characterised by tensions rather than tranquillity: no one is relaxing, for it is obvious that careful management will forever be needed.

Yet a glance at the Middle East shows how far the process has come. Not too long ago a hundred people a year were being killed in Northern Ireland, with shootings and funerals nightly fare on the television news. There are still deaths, but they are much rarer now.

It seems crude, indecent almost, to be pointing to the statistics of death, yet ultimately that is one of main purposes of peace processes. This is not just the politics of the body count: it is about the saving of life. Judged by that criterion, Ireland should be daily celebrating the success of its process.

A new edition of 'Endgame in Ireland' by David McKittrick and Eamonn Mallie is published this month by Coronet Books