David McKittrick: The amazing pact that could finish off the IRA

Many now think a deal between the republican and loyalist extremes is at some stage inevitable

Share
Related Topics

Nobody can remember exactly how many rounds of talks the Irish peace process has seen over the years, but the sequence which kicked off in Belfast yesterday is different from all the others.

Nobody can remember exactly how many rounds of talks the Irish peace process has seen over the years, but the sequence which kicked off in Belfast yesterday is different from all the others.

Gerry Adams was there as usual, as leader of the republican movement, but his old adversary David Trimble has now been displaced as the key figure in Unionism by the Reverend Ian Paisley. Anglo-Irish politics thus has a completely new template. A significant amount of Trimble-Adams chemistry had developed over the years, but there is absolutely no Paisley-Adams relationship: they have never met or spoken.

When Paisley overtook Trimble, in two elections in the last 10 months, most supporters of the peace process were dismayed and appalled. The same elections established Sinn Fein as the primary voice of Northern Ireland nationalism. The arithmetic was as clear as it was unwelcome: in this year's European election the DUP and Sinn Fein together took 58 per cent of the vote. There is a new political landscape, and these two sworn enemies are the tallest trees in it.

During the 10 years of IRA ceasefires, Sinn Fein has become expert at tactical compromises in negotiation. But the DUP arose from Protestant fundamentalism: when its representatives mentioned "Sinn Fein-IRA", for example, they would hiss the words as though speaking of the very devil.

At first, only a few thought any deal between the republican and loyalist extremes was even imaginable, but as the months went by, engagement between the two sides stopped looking impossible. Many, in fact, now think it is, at some stage, inevitable.

The DUP's rhetoric has become remarkably non-confrontational. Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, declared of Sinn Fein: "There will never be a loving relationship between our two parties, but we do not need to like someone in order to work within the main structure."

Paisley himself, who is 78, has not been well, but is as sharp as ever. He is quite capable of pulling the plug if he feels that Robinson and the party's more pragmatic elements - who are more interested in power than Paisley ever was - are going too far.

It is an extraordinary choice for the Protestant patriarch. He could cap his long career by leading his party into power, or to stand pat as the man who, whatever the temptation, would not soil his record with compromise. His possible choice will be put to the test this month when Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern closet the parties at Leeds Castle in Kent in yet another attempt to reach a new agreement.

It hardly needs saying that achieving such a breakthrough will be a tall order, given the people and the issues involved. The DUP want, among other things, the decommissioning of all IRA weapons, and a conclusive end to all paramilitary activity.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein has used intriguing language suggesting that the IRA may move on the arms issue, and republican leaders do not seem to be frightened of the idea of the IRA winding down its activities. The terrorist organisation has already steadily reduced its activities: the times when it killed dozens each year have long gone, and it has very deliberately embarked on a gradual run-down of violence. This suggests that it may contemplate an end to paramilitary activity.

Today, the republican movement's cutting edge is not the IRA but Sinn Fein, which has made huge electoral strides and gained many advances in negotiations. The cool calculation may be that republican power need no longer come from the barrel of a gun.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP want movement on policing, and say they want stable institutions - the Belfast Assembly went through repeated suspensions and is presently in cold storage. There is potential common ground here to be built on.

The greatest convergence of interest, however, goes back to that electoral arithmetic, and to mutual dependence. Both are eager for government, but both know they cannot govern without each other.

In purely party terms, the two already have their respective rivals on the ropes. Should they reach a deal, fresh Assembly elections would in all likelihood completely floor the other nationalist and Unionist parties. This would effectively allow the parties led by Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams to run Northern Ireland together, relegating the others to also-rans.

If it happened, and if it held, it would be a magnificent prize for society as a whole. In the process, the IRA would go out of business, for the DUP will not go into government with a still-active IRA.

Of course, many formidable obstacles stand in the way of agreement emerging this month; but even if there is no immediate breakthrough, the logic propelling these old enemies to work together will still prevail. The DUP might put off a deal until next year, believing that the next Westminster election will provide another hammering for Trimble. Delay would thus consolidate their position. It would also give their grass-roots fundamentalists time to adjust to the amazing concept that "Sinn Fein-IRA" might some day give way to a historic new coalition of "Sinn Fein-DUP."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

£40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: There's a crackle in the Brum air

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Obama has admitted that his administration underestimated the threat posed by Isis  

Syrian air-strikes: Does the US have the foggiest idea who their enemy is?

Kim Sengupta
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style