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No quick fix: What now for Northern Irish politics?

The devastation of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and the crater left in Bishopsgate [left, foreground] in London after the massive IRA bomb blast. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

‘Deep in the psyche of Irish Republicanism is the Holy Grail of an all island republic, and of the right of republicans to take up arms to achieve it’

The events of one day in March encapsulated the contradictions that riddle much official British, Irish, American and media responses to the Northern Ireland problem.

On the 23rd day of last month Theresa May was assuring Parliament – and a nation reeling from shock at the horror of the previous day’s terrorist outrage in London – that British resolve would never waver in the face of terrorism; that democracy and the values it entails would always prevail.

At the same time, in another corner of May’s United Kingdom, her Secretary of State, along with the President of Ireland, former President Clinton and many others, were honouring, with their presence at his funeral, Martin McGuinness, the man who, beyond doubt, was the leader of almost three decades of appalling violence in these islands in which 3,600 people had died, almost 2,000 of them killed by the IRA.

In yet another corner of the UK, in Strabane, on the eve of the Westminster attack and little reported outside Northern Ireland, Irish Republican terrorists detonated a roadside bomb intended to kill police officers.

In a statement on McGuinness, the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire began with ‘while not forgetting the past’ and concluding, affably, ‘Martin will be remembered for his contribution to politics in Northern Ireland and particularly during his near ten years as deputy First Minister’.

Also at the funeral was Alastair Campbell, spokesman for Tony Blair and Downing Street’s go-between with the IRA. Writing in The New European just after the funeral he declared it had been a privilege to be there, that he believed McGuinness to have been a good man, that he had been sincere in his change from IRA commander to politician and peacemaker and that his ability to steer a terrorist movement away from violence had been a major contribution the peace.

In the same issue Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and key negotiator with McGuinness, wrote at length about Brexit and the real threat it poses to peace in Northern Ireland. On the peace process, he wrote, ‘our aim was to make Northern Ireland boring’ – to take it out of the headlines by ending the daily diet of violence.

The 1998 Agreement, he claimed, ‘essentially settled the question of a united Ireland for a generation. It was built around the question of consent’. ‘And we succeeded,’ he concluded. But then ‘into this relative tranquillity crashed the Brexit referendum’ which Powell believes ‘creates a political threat to the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement’ and reopens all the issues that we thought we had managed to settle. To which he added ‘it is a terrible time for McGuinness to have left us’.

Most politicians and commentators have portrayed McGuinness as a latter day democrat who had converted from terrorism to peaceful politics, and to peace-making. It is true he openly committed himself and Sinn Fein to the use of peaceful means only and he denounced those freelance Republicans in Northern Ireland still carrying out acts of terrorism as traitors and enemies of the Irish people.

But denouncing other people’s use of violence for political ends, and even forswearing one’s own use of it for the foreseeable, is not quite the same as renouncing it in principle. That is something neither he nor his fellow ex-IRA Sinn Feiners would ever do. Deep in the psyche of Irish Republicanism is the Holy Grail of an all island republic, and of the inalienable right of republicans to take up arms to achieve it.

As the 1916 Proclamation put it: ‘In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic …’

Armed violence could, and did, fail, but the torch had to be kept alight for future generations. The term ‘renounce’ means to formally and explicitly repudiate something. Yet McGuinness never came near repudiating his own or his IRA comrades’ acts of terror.

It is also true that he was the key to persuading the bulk of the IRA to stop violence, and his hand is clearly to be seen in the documents of the Belfast Agreement. One commentator, Oliver Duff, Editor of the I newspaper, while refusing to mourn McGuinness’s death, still found hope in his transformation from IRA commander to ‘helping engineer Northern Ireland’s lasting peace’.

It is questionable that McGuinness’s purpose in embracing negotiation and an agreement was to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland. His long-term goal was and remained the dismantling of Northern Ireland and its absorption into an all-island Republic.

As leading IRA men admitted privately in the early 1990s, their bombing campaign in England was failing. They were not gaining support among the nationalists in Northern Ireland – up until the mid-1990s the Sinn Fein vote was languishing around 10%, barely half that of the anti-violence SDLP. After two decades of Troubles battle fatigue was emerging in the Sinn Fein strongholds in Belfast, Derry and rural areas. The retaliatory campaign by Loyalist terror groups on Catholics meant dwindling sympathy in those heartlands for ‘the armed struggle’. Penetration by British intelligence was a serious blow to the IRA.

The choice facing the IRA leadership was whether to continue the long slog of the war and risk losing more public support with dwindling hope of any eventual victory, or to explore the chances of a negotiated settlement alongside their new strategy of the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other. A strong incentive to do this came from the leaked acknowledgment that the British military had concluded they could not achieve an outright victory over the IRA, alongside the confirmation via clandestine contacts with London that it too had increasing interest in a negotiated settlement.

If the IRA failed to win the armed struggle, it did, via the medium of Sinn Fein, conclusively win the peace. John Hume and David Trimble were awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes but their parties, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists were the losers, being rapidly eclipsed by the more extreme Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

Remarkably the Belfast Agreement, negotiated to end 30 years of terrorism, never uses the terms ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ to describe Republican or Loyalist subversives. No one is asked to surrender. People in possession of large arsenals of deadly weapons are not required to give them up but rather to ‘decommission’ them themselves.

The rush to embrace publicly the new terrorists-turned peacemakers included Downing Street, the White House, Merrion Street, and large sections of the media. Even that long-term resolute opponent of violence and defender of human rights, President Mary Robinson allowed herself to be manoeuvred into shaking hands with Gerry Adams before the IRA had decommissioned its guns. The result was the rapid swing in support among nationalists away from the SDLP towards the newly sanitised Sinn Fein.

People who worked with and for McGuinness, first as Minister and then as Deputy First Minister almost without exception say they found him pleasant, agreeable and ready to apply himself to the role, as did representatives of other administrations, and even other parties at Stormont.

In the end he saw the Executive collapse in deadlock between his party and the DUP, for which the DUP has received most of the blame. Its handling of the ‘cash for ash’ affair showed both administrative incompetence and lack of political nous. In public relations terms it has been regularly outsmarted by Sinn Fein and made to appear arrogant, intransigent and contemptuous of its opponents.

But if it richly deserves most of the criticism directed at it, there are two sides to every story. Sinn Fein protests that all it wants is equality and respect, and a fair deal for all citizens, but the two key issues, not Brexit but the legacy of the past and the Irish language, are fundamental to Sinn Fein’s united Irish Republic ideology. Sooner or later they would have provoked crisis and deadlock with any Unionist partner, however liberal.

In terms of ‘respect’ the refusal of McGuinness to let the words ‘Northern Ireland’ pass his lips was disrespect of an order far beyond Gregory Campbell’s rather feeble curry my yoghurt joke. To some it was a petty affectation, like crossed fingers behind the back, but it was also a constant reminder that he was denying the legitimacy of Northern Ireland while at the same time being its Deputy First Minister.

Similarly his, and other elected Sinn Fein members’ refusal to take seats at Westminster was an act of disrespect for the democratic process, and a denial of Westminster’s legitimacy.

On the legacy of the Troubles, Sinn Fein’s claims for respect and equality amount to a total rewriting of the history of that period, describing what was a campaign of murder and destruction as a struggle for equality and respect, spearheaded not by terrorists but by freedom fighters. Such a travesty of the truth gains ground in unexpected quarters; a columnist in the eminently responsible Irish Times had this to say apropos McGuinness: ‘Of course, there will always be some who are so implacable and ideologically opposed to McGuinness they can’t acknowledge the British role in creating and enabling the terrors and injustices that led hundreds of men of McGuinness’ generation in Derry and elsewhere to join the IRA.’

John Hume, who was implacably and ideologically opposed to McGuinness’s terrorism, constantly insisted that there was no issue in Northern Ireland justifying the taking of a single life. Hume was the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement launched in the 1960s to campaign for the remedying of specified nationalist grievances. The reforms it asked for were under way before the Provisional IRA was formed, and were in large measure enacted early in the 1970s.

On the Irish language, Sinn Fein’s claims are similarly ideological and political, calling for the restoration of Irish as the spoken language among the majority of people in an Ireland which would be bi-lingual. The parties in the North are already committed – but not in any rush – to developing a strategy to promote the language, taking into account the experience in the rest of Ireland and Wales. Whatever about Wales, experience in the Irish Republic would indicate that Sinn Fein’s aims are totally unrealistic, and to try to have them embodied in an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland is to ensure confrontation, not agreement.

So McGuinness’s chuckling with Paisley and general affability should not be taken as any indication of a real commitment to finding a lasting agreement with Unionists inside a peaceful Northern Ireland. The real commitment was still to the phantom Irish Republic Pearse proclaimed in 1916.

It could be argued that the IRA’s terrorism had not prevailed, in that its campaign was halted without achieving its purpose – the withdrawal of Britain and the incorporation of Northern Ireland into a united Irish Republic. On the other hand to move from heading a 30-year terrorist war against the United Kingdom to becoming Deputy First Minister of a province of the same United Kingdom, not to mention being on nodding terms with the monarch, hardly suggests failure.

Sinn Fein can look on their electoral strength in both parts of Ireland as not inconsiderable progress towards Irish unification.

May said the target of terrorist attack at Westminster was democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. She declared that: ‘Any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.’

Sad to say the rule of law has been one of the major casualties in Northern Ireland. Many terrorists, Republican and Loyalist, have had their sentences curtailed for political, not legal, reasons. Letters of comfort have been sent to wanted suspects, many serious crimes committed in the course of the Troubles have never been solved and their perpetrators never brought to court.

McGuinness was rarely troubled by the rule of law. When Deputy First Minister, he showed his contempt for it when he declared that he would never give evidence against any of his IRA comrades.

The rule of law was ‘suspended’ in Ireland north and south during the long process of ‘decommissioning’ when the people in illegal possession of lethal weapons were allowed to retain such possession, and indeed to escort observers to their arms dumps without molestation from anyone seeking to enforce the law.

When the new Northern Ireland Executive was created in 1999 the rule of law was quietly set aside and democracy was somewhat modified. The Belfast Agreement had decreed that, as a condition of appointment, Ministers had to take the Pledge of Office which included commitment to the Seven Principles of Public Life. One of these, Integrity, states: ‘Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work.’

McGuinness took office as Minister for Education while the IRA was still in illegal possession of its weapons, and while he may have stepped down from being the IRA’s Chief of Staff, it was hardly credible that he was not under an obligation to people in one organisation that might try inappropriately to influence his work.

At this remove some might say this is hair splitting, but in the run up to the referendum on the Belfast Agreement, Downing Street was vigorously briefing doubters that the Code of Conduct was a vital part of the Agreement and that it would prevent Sinn Fein nominees taking their seats in the Executive while the IRA was still in business and still holding on to its weapons.

Does any of this matter? We are almost 20 years on from the Belfast Agreement without resumption of violence at any level approaching that of the Troubles. McGuinness has died quietly in his bed, as did Ian Paisley. The 1916 centenary has passed without igniting a new conflagration, though its enthusiastic celebration of armed struggle may have boosted Sinn Fein’s vote in the last Stormont election.

It all matters because extreme ideologies grow out of bad history, and because fudges and bland assurances are not the best ingredients for a resolution. The Belfast Agreement, despite what Jonathan Powell says, did not invent the ‘consent’ principle. That dates back as far as Sean Lemass’s acceptance of it in the 1960s. The Agreement devalues the consent principle by reducing it to a simple majority in one referendum – in other words it does not mean the consent of the unionist community.

At the heart of the Agreement are concepts like ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘mutual respect’. But when the division is between opposing and antagonistic concepts of identity and the legitimacy of the state, assuring both sides they are right and their claims equally justified is a bit like saying fight it out yourselves and may the best man win.

The enforced coalition of the Agreement, we were told, was intended to oblige the two sides to work together in the expectation that they would realise their common interests, learn to live together, and leave the question of identities to a harmless ‘British, Irish or whatever you like’ formula.

Instead it has delivered political power to the extremes of both sides, who, for the moment at least, can’t find enough common ground to stand on. Casting more gloom on the prospects is Brexit, likely to remove the European dimension which Hume saw, in his Nobel speech, as a shared bond of patriotism and new endeavour for all Irish people.

There is no quick fix, and no point in calling in superannuated US Senators, retired Finnish politicians or would-be messiahs from London or Dublin. The solution has to come through politics inside Northern Ireland, and only the voters can bring that about. That is a faint hope, and will take a long time, but the last elections showed there was still something of a middle ground of moderate-ish parties getting about 36% of the poll. Far behind the 56% going to Sinn Fein and the DUP, but ground to build on.

It would help if the two begetters of the Belfast Agreement, London and Dublin, took a hard look at their offspring and pondered whether enforced coalition based, not on political compromises, but on the straight-jacket classifications of Unionist or Nationalist, is a sensible approach. After nearly twenty years it shows no sign of working.

• Dennis Kennedy is a writer on Irish and European affairs and a former Deputy Editor of the Irish Times

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