This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday September 23 2012
Peace comes dropping slow
There were too many twists and turns in the road to the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement to be covered satisfactorily in 800 words. Readers wanting to follow the detail should read Great Hatred, Little Room by Jonathan Powell for an inside view by a British government participant. Deaglán de Bréadún, of the Irish Times, followed the negotiations on a daily basis and interviewed key people. In his book The Far Side of Revenge. My favorite quotation in the book is from a republican asked about the decommissioning of IRA arms. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”.
Why did it end?
The 30-year war had reached a stalemate. Peter Taylor, in his book Brits, provides convincing evidence to show that British intelligence had improved to such an extent that the IRA were well aware that they could not possibly win. On their side, the British were savvy enough to know that they could not achieve a definitive military defeat of the IRA. Behind a facade of British refusal to talk with terrorists and the IRA refusal to contemplate anything short of a united Ireland, both sides were for a long time edging towards compromise.
De Bréadún provides pithy pen portraits of key participants. Of Bill Clinton, he says: “A needy man met a needy people”. He quotes George Mitchell: “No-one can really have a chance in a society dominated by fear, hatred and violence…a deadly ritual in which most of the victims are innocent”.
PMs Blair and Ahern grew in stature because of their dogged efforts on Northern Ireland before, respectively, Iraq and corruption destroyed their reputations.
Three Catholic Northern Ireland citizens were essential to the peace process. John Hume, of the Social Democratic Liberal Party sacrificed his health throughout his adult life representing the nationalist community’s aspirations for an end to discrimination. Although Hume was a fervent upholder of non-violence, he was courageous enough to maintain dialogue with the men of violence, chiefly through Gerry Adams.
De Bréadún writes of Gerry Adams, “He failed to match the stereotype of the fire-breathing subversive, choosing instead to act as a conduit for the grievances of the grassroots”.
While Adams dealt with the broad strategic sweep, Martin McGuinness proved to be a canny negotiator. According to a senior Dublin civil servant: “The boy revolutionary developed into a mature and skilful politician”. De Bréadún writes: “Mc Guinness got respect in his own right, thanks to his formidable history as an activist and his direct and commanding personality. If Adams was the architect of the republican project, McGuinness was the engineer”.
On the Unionist side David Trimble had been involved with the right-wing, paramilitary-linked Vanguard in the early 1970s before he joined the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party. As the leader of the UUP he could not afford to be too “moderate”. The Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist party was constantly raising the “No surrender. No popery” ante and Trimble had to be seen to support triumphalist loyalist marches through Catholic areas.
Many regarded the peace process with scepticism concerned that it would bring men of violence into the heart of democracy. Symbolic issues like policing and decommissioning provided obstacles. To carry his party with him, Trimble had to insist that the IRA decommission its arms. McGuinness and Adams had great authority with the rank and file of the IRA but could not sell decommissioning as it would be seen as surrender without achieving the aim of a united Ireland.
To cut a convoluted story short, peace was achieved through a process of constructive ambiguity, which allowed all actors to say they had not surrendered. Talks resumed in 1993 after Clinton listened to Sinn Féin On April 10, 1998, the British and Irish governments formulated the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, and 2007 elections, the DUP and Sinn Féin formed a government in May 2007. Paisley became First Minister and McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister.
The nationalists could say that their struggle had entered new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Adams’s Sinn Fein. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable nay-sayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.