Why the Mad Dogs won't derail the peace process

'What is significant is the number of canines that, despite Mad Dog's orders, have refused to bark'
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The Independent Online

The paradox is that, although there is once again gunplay in Belfast, once again bodies in the streets, once again an expectation of more shootings to come, nobody really thinks the overall peace process in Northern Ireland is seriously endangered.

The paradox is that, although there is once again gunplay in Belfast, once again bodies in the streets, once again an expectation of more shootings to come, nobody really thinks the overall peace process in Northern Ireland is seriously endangered.

It is certainly a crisis for those who live in the Shankill Road district, which is being tormented by gunmen intent on shooting or intimidating, and for the authorities who are seeking to manage this hazardous situation. But the rest of the society in the city is basically looking on with horrified fascination, as spectators rather than participants, as the extraordinary and bizarre episode sparked off by "Mad Dog" Adair plays itself out.

The feeling is that the peace process is not under threat because so much of this centres on just one erratic individual. There is a background political context to it all, but much of it still comes down to that one man. The Shankill has turned out a succession of mad dogs, but this one has behaved in a spectacularly rabid way. In the background, though, the peace process and the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive both appear to be ticking over quite well. The politicians, having struggled mightily to get themselves into the Belfast assembly and its cross-community administration, promptly took a nice long summer holiday.

The fact that most of the leading political figures have been nowhere to be seen over the summer might be thought to have produced a political vacuum. But this is not the case; the relaxed political atmosphere has somehow, instead, given the executive an air of increased stability.

Two major episodes during the summer, July's Drumcree stand-off and the loyalist feuding, have both greatly and obviously disturbed the peace, yet there is good reason to calculate that both will, in time, strengthen the peace process rather than damage it.

Importantly, it looks as though events have greatly weakened the standing of both Harold Gracey, the leading official of the Portadown Orangemen, who staged the first episode, and of Johnny Adair, who was involved in both. Supporters of the peace process will be quietly delighted that the influence of the two men has been diminished.

During Drumcree, Harold Gracey called loyalists onto the streets, turning Belfast into a ghost town for a week or more. But it was a bad move, because it generated much low-level violence and disruption all over Northern Ireland. Gracey made huge mistakes in refusing to condemn violence and by declining to distance himself from Johnny Adair's enthusiastic support.

As a result Gracey lost the support of middle Protestant Ulster, which watched with distaste as the police, who are made up largely of its own sons, came under attack from violent loyalist mobs. Gracey managed to bring temporary ruin to Northern Ireland, but, more significantly, in doing so he split the Protestant community. Crucially, he split the Orange Order itself. In mid-July its leaders tapped him on the shoulder and explained what had become evident: that there was no further appetite for this type of action. Within a day or two, the protests had petered out.

This may turn out to be a point of historic import, since the ability of the Orangemen of Portadown to use Drumcree to batter everyone else into submission had the capacity to wreck the peace process. This year was a severe setback for the Order, made all the worse by the fact that it was self-inflicted.

You can never say never, but the general Protestant rejection of Gracey's Orange disorder may mean that this particular weapon has been spiked once and for all. Loyalists in other districts this year reached discreet and civilised agreements with local Catholic residents about their marchers; the Portadown men may now be sufficiently chastened to follow suit, maybe next year or the year after.

Unlike the Orange Order, Johnny Adair's UFF technically supports the peace process. He personally has made a mockery of this, however, with his appearances at displays of loyalist weaponry and his organisation's issuing of death threats.

Although he has been the primary actor in the present loyalist feud, his return to prison this week is unlikely to end the hostilities. This is partly because he is quite capable of issuing orders from his cell, and partly because the paramilitary blood is up. If past form is anything to go by, there will be more blood-letting in the backstreets before they get round to peace talks.

Yet what is highly significant is the number of canines that, despite Mad Dog's orders, have refused to bark, or bite. There have been a few scattered UFF attacks on UVF targets in a number of outlying districts, but most of the rest of the UFF dog-pack has not responded to the call to savage their paramilitary rivals.

This is largely because Adair has gone into such patently manic overdrive. People who join paramilitary groups such as the UFF accept the use of violence, but there are degrees of extremism and Adair's behaviour was becoming ever more frenzied. Even when the troubles were at their height there were still unwritten rules of paramilitary etiquette for both loyalists and republicans. When those rules were breached, penalties were generally incurred, most obviously in the form of intensified security force pressure.

That would produce extra arrests and searches and so on. This was unwelcome even back in the old days, when the old paramilitary hands viewed it as a disruption of the general equilibrium. It is even more unwelcome now, when the peace process is popular with, or at least acceptable to, most of the loyalist paramilitaries.

This is not to say that they approve of everything that goes on; the feeling is widespread, for example, that republicans are getting far too much out of the peace process.

Nor is it the case that loyalists are contemplating de-commissioning their weapons. There never was much chance of that, and the current feud reinforces their instinct that guns remain essential, if only for defence purposes during disputes like this.

But while they all envisage that Belfast's paramilitary underworld will remain in existence, many people, even in UFF ranks, also privately believe that Adair has repeatedly overstepped the bounds of paramilitary decency. His high profile stirs things up, which means that guns get seized and business is affected: it gets more difficult to carry on loan-sharking and drug-dealing, as some of them do, when the cops keep breaking the door down.

In sum, Drumcree and the Adair push have both been attempts by different factions of loyalist extremism to get their way, to keep using the methods of the bad old days, and in the process to damage the peace process.

Both attempts have failed, with the implosion of both Gracey-style Orangeism and Adair-style paramilitarism. The failure of the attempts they have made to impose their will gives grounds for saying there is a strong communal determination that the day of the warlords should be past.