Leading Article: After the marching, the waiting season

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The Independent Online
Britain and Ireland are today experiencing what might be termed the relief of Londonderry: a sense of thankfulness that the last major events of the marching season have passed with relatively little disturbance. Having just lived through some 2,600 loyalist parades and around 300 nationalist marches Northern Ireland can relax, just a little.

Next year will bring another marching season, but in the meantime a three- person committee - made up of an Oxford academic, a Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest - will be grappling with the parades issue and reporting to the Government. It may produce valuable suggestions.

To be blunt, it had better. This has been an awful summer for Northern Ireland, and strenuous efforts on both marches and other fronts will be required to avoid a further deterioration. Things had seemed bad enough with the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire and the murderous IRA bombings in the London Docklands and in Manchester. But last month's Drumcree stand- off has driven a sword between the two communities, severely damaged Anglo- Irish relations, and raised the most fundamental questions about Northern Ireland's viability as a society.

Although these latest marches passed off comparatively peacefully, the tensions, anxieties and even dread experienced in the run-up to them served as a reminder that it is a society which is never too far from the brink. In recent years a number of factors had increased confidence in its stability. These included a limited economic upturn, the potential for progress through the peace process, the increased professionalism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and a strengthened London-Dublin relationship. Drumcree wrecked much of this.

Today the police candidly, though privately, admit that law and order did break down in that period and that the security forces simply could not cope. That sense of a society virtually out of control is profoundly damaging for economic prospects: big business will invest in a region suffering from terrorism but many turn away completely from a place where central authority is seen, even momentarily, to be lost.

This point was well put by Northern Ireland's leading business and commercial organisations, which recently combined to deliver a sombre warning: "The world thought that we had turned a corner. It has been shocked - indeed we have surprised ourselves - by the public display of animosity and bitterness. For Northern Ireland the moment of truth has arrived when it must decide whether it wants to be regarded as a credible, serious, first-division economic player or is prepared to accept relegation."

But one problem is that the leaders of the Belfast brigade of the IRA, and the Orangemen who last month blocked hundreds of roads, can both, if unemployed, rely on Britain to cough up their dole money, as well as to continue to search for new investment. There is no perceived economic penalty for extremism.

There is no local political penalty either. There is no indication that David Trimble's Ulster Unionists will suffer at the polls for their identification with Drumcree: indeed, the chances are that their next vote will go up. Similarly Sinn Fein, which has played a cool, calculating hand in many of the parading controversies, is currently on the crest of a wave.

The reduction of politics to geo-sectarian street manoeuvres has led many moderate Unionists to something close to despair. The closest thing they have to a political voice are probably the business organisations quoted above, but the business community has become almost completely detached from Unionist politics, and has only marginal influence on it.

The fact that there is also deep disillusionment throughout constitutional nationalism, north and south, is a factor which may significantly increase instability. Non-violent nationalists were clearly collectively scandalised by Drumcree, which at a stroke all but shattered their confidence in the Government and the RUC.

At this moment the arguments within nationalism are being won by those who say Protestants will never accept Catholics as equals; that Unionism will never formulate a deal acceptable to nationalists; that the RUC will never be an acceptable police force; that Britain lacks the will or the means to deal with Orange mobs - in short, that Northern Ireland cannot be gradually reformed into a truly equal society.

It will be disastrous if these views harden from expressions of anger into settled conclusions. Nationalists will only be induced to shelve their aspiration to a united Ireland in return for a deal offering them equality and parity of esteem. If this is not on offer, then nationalism as a whole will conclude that Northern Ireland is, and will remain, an unjust entity. Such a communal judgement would give the IRA the moral cloud-cover for a fierce and protracted new campaign; the loyalist paramilitaries will reciprocate; and a new and terrible cycle will begin. The current poisonous atmosphere will provide plenty of recruits to the two equally futile causes.

There are few indications that the Government fully grasps the seriousness of the situation. Sir Patrick Mayhew looks tired, at a loss, and possibly demob-happy. John Major has devoted more time, energy and thought to Ireland than any prime minister since Gladstone and Lloyd George; sadly, his efforts have yet to receive their reward. He has many other items on his agenda, but he must continue to make Ireland an urgent priority. Otherwise he risks entering next year's general election with a rapidly worsening situation.