Ulster looks into the abyss

David McKittrick laments the week that destroyed everything

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Words such as "watershed" and "momentous" have been used so often in relation to Northern Ireland in recent years that their meaning is in danger of becoming devalued. But there is little doubt that the events of last week merit both of those terms and more. Furthermore, the watershed is one of a most disastrous kind.

The sight of riots, petrol bombs and destruction is bad enough, but the long-term consequences of what has happened in the past week are even worse. The rule of law has been fundamentally, perhaps fatally, undermined and it may be that the Troubles, which many had hoped had run their course, are being regenerated before our eyes.

The Government gives every appearance of either not understanding what is happening or of being in denial. The impression given by Sir Patrick Mayhew, in a series of slighlty giddy television appearances, was that the problem lay among three elements: Unionists, nationalists, and the local police force. There was no evident recognition that in the course of the week a large amount of authority had been transferred from the Government to the men on the streets. Sir Patrick told one incredulous interviewer to cheer up.

What began at Drumcree on Sunday last as a problem over a march developed, as thousands of Orangemen took to the streets in an effort to bring the province to a standstill, into a fundamental issue of the rule of law.

The eventual decision to reverse the original ruling and allow the Orangemen to march along the Catholic Garvaghy Road was defended by Sir Hugh Annesley, the chief constable, and by Sir Patrick on purely pragmatic grounds. If the RUC had not forced the march through, Sir Hugh argued, the security forces could have been overwhelmed and many deaths might have followed. There was no other option, Sir Patrick explained breezily.

This frank recognition of realpolitik ignored what many nationalists saw as the moral dimension. The authorities had thought it right to ban the march; their minds had been changed not by force of argument, but by a wave of civil disobedience that stretched from peaceful demonstrations through hijackings and intimidation to serious assaults and a murder.

Moderate nationalist Ireland, political and spiritual, watched in horror as the two men, and later John Major, spelled out that the Government had in effect no choice but to bow to the disorder threatened by the big Orange battalions. This section of opinion has spent a quarter of a century arguing with republican extremists that Britain is neutral in the dispute.

The Government has, however, just conceded what the hawks in the IRA argue: that Britain responds primarily to violence, and that a peace process is less likely to bring results that a war process.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party for less than a year, has just moved away from the strict parliamentarianism of his predecessor, James Molyneaux, and regressed to an earlier, more primitive form of Unionism, the sort identified with Carson and Craigavon in the Home Rule crisis of 1912 and after. In other words, he is not just head of a small group of MPs but can also command a highly effective Orange street force.

Mr Trimble has not, during his career, made any proposal on the future government of Northern Ireland which was remotely likely to be acceptable to northern nationalists. He is hardly likely to do so now.

Unionism has always contained voices who have argued that the best means of strengthening and safeguarding the union with Britain was to reach an accommodation with nationalists. This faction has, however, always been in a minority, and is now certain to remain so. The psychological mindset of the leaders of Unionism and Orangeism is that if they eschew negotiation, stand firm and face down their opponents they are likely to get their way. They will now be confirmed in this belief. With Drumcree under his belt, Mr Trimble may enter a more parliamentary phase but from now on, all will be aware, to quote Theodore Roosevelt, that while he may speak softly, he carries a big stick. One need only ask oneself: who has more power in the province now, David Trimble or Sir Patrick Mayhew?

After the loyalist general strike of 1974, it took British governments 11 years before they dared to take an action strongly opposed by Unionists and sign the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Now a new armlock has been placed on British policymakers, and it is difficult to imagine Tony Blair, or another Conservative government, doing anything that would go strongly against the Orange grain. Re-imposing the full authority that the Government lost last week would require taking on the Orange Order again at another Drumcree and winning.

The week had another terrible effect in that it set back for years the prospects of some agreed new settlement. Dublin and moderate nationalists have spent a decade and more working on the theory that while the union with Britain is here to stay for the foreseeable future, the consolation on offer to Irish nationalists is the construction, slowly but surely, of a fairer Northern Ireland in which Unionism and nationalism can both be respected. That theory has been dealt a shattering and possibly lethal blow.

Priests, bishops and nationalist MPs are all now saying the same thing: that the RUC, probably with government approval, showed itself one-sided both in its strategy and in the actions of individual officers.

In 1969, the television pictures of officers clubbing Catholic civil rights campaigners led to the first serious trouble. In 1996, nationalist leaders watched with something close to disbelief as policemen did not move in on Orangemen blocking roads but waded in with unmistakable energy and even enthusiasm to shift Catholics sitting down on the Garvaghy Road.

The RUC, the most important institution of the state, had won the quiet admiration of many nationalists over the years for its increased professionalism and, often, its attention to political sensitivities. It is no exaggeration to say that almost all of this has been lost in the course of a single week, leaving many nationalists speculating darkly that there may have been some form of mutiny threatened within the force by police who would not contemplate taking on the Orange order.

Most Orangemen clearly believe that they won a great victory last week. Certainly their march got through. Nationalists were humiliated, and Unionism and Orangeism demonstrated real muscle.

But in the process the underlying instability of the state was exposed, the very fabric of society was ripped and damaged, and the most fundamental questions were posed about the reformability of Northern Ireland.

It seems hardly credible that a province which last year had the hope of a bright new future could so swiftly be transformed into a political wasteland, its economic prospects dashed, its image defaced, its communal relations in ruins. Even in Ireland the prospects have rarely seemed bleaker.

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