Jump-Start for Peace

The political situation in Northern Ireland often seems to lurch from one crisis to the next. But after a pledge from the Irish Republican Army to place its weapons “beyond use” and allow international inspections, the peace process appeared to be back on track. Unionists reluctantly rejoined Republicans in the fragile coalition government that was suspended in February over the issue of IRA disarmament. The next sticking point, however, is reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

But until London announces its plans, devolved government is once again working. Even the bombing of a bridge in London by dissident Republicans on June 1 did little to shake the politicians’ resolve.

The IRA’s peace declaration and the regrouping of the newly-elected Assembly and executive in Stormont drew praise throughout the British Isles.

“Against all odds, fresh life has been breathed into the peace process, and hopes raised that the Good Friday Agreement may yet be fully implemented,” declared the independent Belfast Telegraph (May 8). In Dublin, the weekly Sunday Independent (May 7) declared, “Whether arms are surrendered, or whether they are put beyond use, is largely irrelevant. Both are different means to realizing the same end.”

From London, the liberal Guardian (May 8) noted: “It is decommissioning, not surrender.…That is important, allowing the [IRA] to believe that what is happening is not defeat—but the withdrawal from the battlefield of two armies which have fought each other to “ ‘an honourable draw.’ ”

An editorial in the centrist Irish Times of Dublin (May 29) said that “all parties to the agreement will now watch closely to ensure that the Republican movement honors its side of the compromise.” But columnist John Waters in the same edition of the Irish Times put the load on the Unionists. “One should never underestimate the Unionist genius for negativity and inertia,” he wrote. “In the chess-like nature of the peace process, it may well be that Unionists have simply agreed to make this next lurch forward because they know it will shift the onus back on to Republicans to make the next move.”

Back in London, The Telegraph can always be counted on to provide a critical view of any compromise with the Republican cause. Jenny McCartney wrote in the conservative Sunday Telegraph (May 28) that “Britain wishes both to devolve power and ‘internationalize’ the problems of Northern Ireland to the point where it becomes a kind of communally monitored enclave. The British are leaving the room on tiptoe, with the lights still on.”

Meanwhile, writing in The Guardian (May 27), author and playwright Ronan Bennett urged the British government not to dilute the RUC reforms laid down in a report from former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten. Among the many suggestions, Patten urged the force to be renamed and active measures taken to recruit Roman Catholics. Bennett pointed out that many Catholics don’t trust the RUC enough to call it if they have been crime victims, let alone enlist in the force.

“There are many people who thought the Chris Patten report…did not go far enough and that the case for disbanding the RUC and starting afresh was unanswerable,” he wrote. “If Unionists succeed in minimizing reform, the party may have reasons to feel pleased, but it will be to the ultimate detriment of the North.…[The] law and order vacuum will continue to be filled by the men with baseball bats and pistols.”