Thorns in the side of peace

Outbursts of violence in Northern Ireland show that the ceasefires cannot be taken for granted
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The Independent Online
The violent scenes at the weekend marches in Northern Ireland raise questions about the state of health of the peace process which, 111/2 months ago, led to the historic IRA cessation of violence. No one has been killed for almost a year: the guns are silent and the bombs no longer go off. Most people now regard a return to violence as all but unimaginable, each passing day making a revival of terrorism less and less likely.

Yet the ancient art of coat-trailing seems as popular as ever. The weekend parades were only the latest in a series that has disturbed the peace as both loyalists and republicans display an insatiable appetite to stage demonstrations that can lead to trouble. The results, by Northern Ireland standards, are comparatively minor: no one has been killed or seriously hurt in the sporadic clashes. But each episode of street disorder adds another little layer to the patina of communal bitterness and tensions, and sets back any movement towards reconciliation.

The peace process has been buffeted, in its short life, not only by controversies over marches but by developments such as the early release of Private Lee Clegg, a change of government in the Irish Republic, and the protracted stalemate on decommissioning weapons. But, although Gerry Adams and other republican leaders have often used the word "crisis" when berating the Government for its alleged sluggishness, the ceasefires have at no stage looked like breaking down. Because of this, and because most people hope so fervently that the peace will last, many have come to take it for granted.

Adams and his close lieutenants can see the damage the republican movement would do itself by reverting to the gun: all their new-found friends and allies in Ireland, America and elsewhere would turn their backs and consign Sinn Fein to Arctic isolation. But not everyone in the republican community thinks in such broad political terms, such as the man who called out "Bring back the IRA!" during Gerry Adams' speech yesterday. Out there in the grassroots some argue that, a year on, Sinn Fein has not been fully admitted to the political processes; that Unionism looks unreconstructed and unyielding; that the only prisoner released has been Private Lee Clegg; and that Britain can never be trusted. The British concentration on decommissioning can be seen as a sign that London's goal is a military victory over the IRA, and not the all-inclusive political settlement Sinn Fein wants.

At the moment much attention is focused on Patrick Kelly, an IRA prisoner in an English prison who is suffering from skin cancer and who republicans allege is being denied proper treatment. A republican declared at a meeting in Belfast this week: "For a lot of people in our community the whole peace process is a very abstract thing. If you're talking about tangible, concrete measures that would consolidate and move the thing forward, the issue of prisoners is one that can be easily identified and easily measured. To have seen no response from the British Government is not only disheartening, it's making people angry and frustrated. If we can't get treatment for Patrick Kelly for skin cancer, what does that say about the British Government's approach to the broader issues?"

The Kelly case will presumably be dealt with at some stage, and at some stage an understanding on decommissioning will emerge to allow the peace process to move on. But prisoners, guns and the question of when inter- party talks should start are all issues that will remain thorny problems not for months but for years ahead.

Disputed marches and demonstrations will also continue. They have been taking place for a century and more, long before Northern Ireland even came into being, and have always been part of the background static. For example, it takes Bob Purdie a dozen pages in his book Politics in the Streets to outline the large and small controversies and disturbances of the peace in the early 1960s. Many now hazily remember this as something of a golden age of peace and progress: in fact there were dozens of cases of riots, arson, and street clashes.

Such activities predated the quarter-century of terrorism, and show no sign of abating now. So while the republican and loyalist ceasefires show no sign of an impending breakdown, the fact is that years of controversy lie ahead, both in politics and on the streets. So far the clashes have been relatively contained, with brief outbursts of violence quickly dying away. The problem is that a major political issue, or some little piece of street theatre, could escalate into something really threatening.

The ceasefires have brought encouraging little thaws in community relations, with, for example, two Unionists last week venturing up the Falls Road to share a platform with Sinn Fein. But a year of peace has led to little or no increase in trust between the two key components, the republicans and the Government, and much of the discourse between them continues to be conducted by means of megaphone.

A government source this week said privately: "The feeling is that if it [the peace] does make it through the 12-month barrier, it's going to be very difficult to unravel it." Irish nationalists, by contrast, worry about British complacency and argue that it's more complicated than that.

One Dublin source said: "The ceasefires are a dynamic: you need a certain dynamism to hold them and they have to be underpinned by political negotiation. The fact that they are so popular doesn't necessarily mean that they are therefore irreversible. We can't rely on the threat of public anger to keep violence permanently off the screen: I don't think it has ever worked like that before."

In other words, the price of peace will be eternal vigilance - the most careful handling of all the minor dramas that might turn into a real crisis. Above all, critical judgements have continually to be made about the state of play within both republicanism and loyalism, and a watch kept for the rise of any new hawkish elements.

A genuine worry for many of the other participants in the peace process is the level of competence displayed by the Government. Both nationalists and loyalists profess themselves puzzled by shifts in policy and baffled by the timing of some decisions. Generalised praise for John Major's personal commitment to peace is often accompanied by charges of inept day-to-day management of the process.

Everyone - including republicans - would be happier if London held to a more consistent line and displayed more sureness of touch in its handling of what, a year on, is a delicate process that will continue to require judicious, intricate micro-management if it is to lead to lasting peace.

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