David McKittrick: Why there may never be perfect peace in Ulster

'The majority of people did not want to form Protestant-Catholic friendship societies'
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Perhaps the latest crisis in the peace process crisis can be put into perspective by recalling that Northern Ireland has never been what you could call a normal society.

Perhaps the latest crisis in the peace process crisis can be put into perspective by recalling that Northern Ireland has never been what you could call a normal society. Born in crisis 80 years ago, its first half-century was a story of Protestant superiority and Catholic exclusion. The Protestant Ulster Unionists exhibited little generosity towards the Catholic minority, which complained it was being denied both its Irish identity and fairness in jobs and housing. Obviously this was bad for the Catholics, but it was unhealthy, too, for Protestants, brought up in a culture which taught them they were superior to Catholics.

The marks and scars left by 50 years of this are visible every day all over Northern Ireland, producing the kind of extremism that so appals observers in Britain and the Republic. But worse was to come.

The unequal society led on to the nightmare of the Troubles, with more than 3,600 deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. There were more than 35,000 shootings, more than 15,000 bombs, tens of thousands of men sent to jail.

All this increased the bitterness and the hatred. The fact that it went on for more than three decades meant that a generation grew up with violence as a constant. The peace progress, which has achieved such progress in recent years, has not primarily been based on any deep sense that the time had come for the two sides to embrace, politically or socially, and to face the future hand in hand. It was based first and foremost on a yearning for peace, on an end to the violence, rather than on any instinct for reconciliation and cooperation. The majority of people did not want to form Protestant-Catholic friendship societies: they just wanted an end to the gunfire.

Those who assumed the process would deliver complete peace have been disappointed. Most of all, those Protestants who thought the process, and the Good Friday Agreement it produced, would halt republican advances have been disillusioned.

Unfortunately for modernising Unionists such as David Trimble, the Protestant community has a couple of unhelpful political habits. One is the tendency to regard even necessary reforms, such as changes in policing to meet the altered circumstances, not as sensible adjustments but as yet more republican victories.

Another is to minimise the value of its own victories. Consent is enshrined in law, the Irish constitution has been changed as Unionists asked, devolution came back. Yet Unionism draws little satisfaction: in that culture, eaten bread is soon forgot.

Viewing politics through this pessimistic prism, many Protestants regard the peace process as an endless procession of defeats for their cause and their concerns. Partly because of this, they elevated decommissioning to a talismanic status. It is about taking the gun out of politics, about protecting democracy and all that. But it is also about putting the republicans in their place, about re- asserting Protestant power, about finally winning out on some issue – almost any issue.

The decommissioning fixation has meant that many other issues have almost vanished off the Unionist radar screen. Nowhere is this more striking than in the perception of the patterns of violence.

While there has been violence from both republican and loyalist groups over the summer on the streets of north Belfast and elsewhere, most of the sectarian attacks have been the work of Protestant extremists. Loyalists have flung well over a hundred pipe bombs this year – sometimes at police but most often at Catholic targets. All of this produces saloon-bar assertions that nothing has changed and things are as bad as ever. Yet the counter-argument – that the peace process is imperfect and incomplete but nonetheless of great value – is strongly supported by the grim statistics of death.

Over the last three years an average of 12 people have died each year: far too many. Yet the average annual death toll for the three previous years was 34; for the three years before that it was 56; for the three before that it was 92.

The cold statistics make the most compelling case of all for persevering with the process. They strongly suggest that hundreds of people who are alive today might have died if the old patterns had continued to exist and if the peace process had never come into being. While this is quite an inspirational thought, the reality is that deaths are likely to persist, though at ever-lower levels. The inherently abnormal society, deeply traumatised by the Troubles, may never know perfect peace.

The psychology of nationalist advance and Unionist loss is deeply embedded. This, together with demographic trends that have seen a significant rise in Catholic and nationalist numbers, means that Unionists will never be confident that a united Ireland will not heave into sight in a decade or two. Even though there are such tensions, and indeed hatreds, in many quarters, few believe that the present political difficulties will pitch Northern Ireland back to the really bad days, the days filled with death.

The sense is still in the air that, for all the turbulence, few want to go back. So, too, is the sense that, even if the Assembly goes down this time, there is little alternative but to return in the autumn to continue the painfully slow business of working out how to co-exist.