One must take a deep breath when looking at events in Northern Ireland today.
One must take a deep breath when looking at events in Northern Ireland today. A very deep breath. So much has gone wrong, so many hopes have been raised, only to be dashed on the rocks of intolerance and despair. The resignation of David Trimble as First Minister is a reminder of just how bad things have become. The proposals announced by the British and Irish governments yesterday to keep the peace process alive are undoubtedly flawed; it could scarcely have been otherwise. But the intentions were good – and less naive than they might at first glance seem.
Three years ago, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, hurrahs were heard on both sides of the Irish Sea – although much louder, it must be said, in Britain than in bomb-weary Northern Ireland itself. Scepticism within the province ran deep, even if the mainland persuaded itself that everybody would live happily ever after.
In the meantime, the balance of disbelief has been redressed. On the mainland, the pessimism is greater than before. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, despite the ongoing crises and the inbred pessimism, there is a sense of half-surprise that things have turned out less badly than many expected.
A glance at the statistics makes the picture clear. In the past three years, an average of 12 people a year have died. To take the standard political mantra, that is 12 people too many. It is, however, three times fewer than in previous years, and more than seven times fewer than the 90-odd who died annually at the beginning of the 1990s.
The paramilitaries – loyalist and republican alike – continue to mete out their own thuggish version of street justice and vendettas. Ulster is, however, a less dangerous place. There is plenty of room for pessimism. But those death statistics are the ultimate proof that the peace process has, in the broadest sense, been worthwhile. No amount of bluster can get past that truth.
Yesterday's proposals must be seen in that context. In the short term, the nationalists have gained much more than the loyalists. The dismantling of military installations and observation points – especially in the traditional IRA stronghold of south Armagh – is an obvious concession. So, too, is the decision to end the use of plastic bullets. The ruling that terrorists on the run will no longer be pursued is a concession which appears morally indefensible, although its longer-term benefits (stability, stability, and more stability) should be clear to all.
We have heard talk from the IRA of how they are ready to put their weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use". In practice, that commitment has been hedged about with so many ifs and buts that it has seemed to belong in the unlikely land of Godot. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein continue to drone on about decommissioning just around the corner. But we finally need to see some actions instead of empty words. At no point have they acknowledged the need to give the Protestants breathing space. It is regrettable that yesterday's proposals, intended to prevent the peace process from breaking down altogether, do not give the Unionists more substantial concessions, given the terrible rawness felt by many Protestants today.
John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is right, however, to argue that it would be a tragedy if the parties were to reject this package. The deadline of midnight on 11 August is in some respects a fake deadline – intended, above all, to concentrate minds. But it is also real. With luck, today's 12-a-year death statistics will come to seem past history, just as the 90-a-year death cull is today. Pessimism is everywhere. But hope has not yet died.Reuse content