Ireland: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams addresses the media in Dublin, Oct. 19, 2002 (Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP).

On Nov. 21, Northern Ireland’s feuding political parties will come together in a round-table session in Belfast aimed at resolving the two-month long crisis that has seen Britain’s suspension of the power-sharing assembly of Protestants and Roman Catholics created under the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement.

The restoration of direct rule from London was triggered by a televised raid on the offices of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). On Oct. 4, more than 200 officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) ransacked the party’s offices at Stormont, home of the assembly, and removed a handful of files. The raid, described as “Operation Overkill” by the Oct. 28 edition of the satirical Dublin magazine The Phoenix, led to the arrest of a senior member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has since been charged with five counts of possessing documents useful to terrorists.

Unionists have said they will not return to a government with Sinn Fein until the IRA is dismantled. Last month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for the group’s disbandment. The IRA responded that it would not submit to “untenable ultimatums,” and suspended contact with the international body overseeing its disarmament.

The crisis came just as the peace process in Northern Ireland was on the verge of collapse under the strain of other pressures. Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, first minister of the assembly, is losing support to hard-line unionists who have always opposed the Good Friday Agreement. “The unionists are very divided and many of them were looking for an excuse to collapse the thing. What happened last Friday [the raid on Sinn Fein offices] gave them that opportunity,” wrote former U.K. Labor Party Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson in the Oct. 13 edition of Edinburgh’s independent Scotland on Sunday. “Despite working together in government for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history,” Mandelson continued, “There is barely any greater trust between republicans and unionists than there was before the peace process started.”

In an Oct. 28 column, The Phoenix noted that “the timing of the raid was also interesting—coming the weekend before Blair was due to meet all the main players…to discuss the crisis caused by Trimble losing his grip.” The column went on to say that “those who feel confused by the spin and counterspin from the world of smoke, spooks, and mirrors should understand that the peace process resulted only in the end of the shooting war. The IRA and British intelligence (in its many manifestations) continue to stalk each other by mutual consent, if not acknowledgement.”

The dissenting unionists fear that the electoral success achieved by Sinn Fein—it is on its way to overtaking the moderate nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP) as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland—may edge Sinn Fein closer to achieving a united Ireland. For the moment, a united Ireland looks impossible. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, unionists, as the majority in Northern Ireland, retain a veto over the future of the disputed province. But demographic trends are against them: Within decades, Catholics may overtake Protestants as the largest religious group in Northern Ireland. The agreement can be renegotiated if there is clear evidence that there is overwhelming support for constitutional change. As it stands, both the British government and Unionists as the majority in Northern Ireland retain the right to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Unionists argue that Sinn Fein has gotten more from the agreement than they have put into it. In particular, they point to the slowness of the IRA in decommissioning its weapons and contend that the spying charges prove that the IRA has approached the process in bad faith.

On the arms issue, the unionists have the support of the British and Irish governments. Although the agreement did not set out a timetable for disarmament, politicians in both Ireland and Britain are growing increasingly impatient with Sinn Fein and the IRA for dragging their heels on the arms issue. Both governments have committed to the Good Friday Agreement and meet regularly under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a body set up under the terms of the agreement.

The mainstream Irish media are also pointing a finger at Sinn Fein for not doing enough to convince the IRA to give up its weapons. The day after local rule was suspended, Dublin’s centrist Irish Times commented, “There is one good thing to come out of the suspension on this occasion. The Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister Bertie] Ahern and Blair…are singing off the clearest of hymn sheets now….[They] have made it abundantly clear that there has been a breakdown of trust between unionists and republicans on the arms issue.”

The same day, Cork’s centrist Irish Examiner’s editorial also placed the blame on Sinn Fein. “It has been a depressing measure of the failure of the political system that, for the fourth time in under three years, ordinary, decent people who live with the reality of violence on their doorstep have witnessed the collapse of institutions specifically set up to bring some sense of normality to life in a troubled society,” the Irish Examiner’s editors wrote. “If blame is to be apportioned, a large measure must be borne by Sinn Fein. What the party leadership seems incapable of realizing is that its obduracy in stonewalling genuine questions smacks of arrogance and only serves to sharpen allegations of espionage by republican activists, or the blatant activities of IRA men north and south of the border, plus the terrorism charges against the Colombian Three [three alleged members of the IRA are on trial in Colombia, charged with assisting FARC guerillas].”

“We will not accept unreasonable demands,” was the immediate response from Sinn Fein. Moreover, it accused Blair of hypocrisy for ignoring violence from loyalist paramilitaries. While the Police Service of Northern Ireland acknowledged in September that the majority of paramilitary violence is being organised by loyalists, an Oct.15 editorial in The Belfast Newsletter (unionist) argued that the “crucial difference is that they [loyalist paramilitaries] do not help to govern this country.” Meanwhile, an Oct. 31 editorial in the weekly Sinn Fein organ An Phoblacht/Republican News blamed the crisis on the British government, citing “its refusal to fully implement the internationally binding agreement…which it signed…in 1998. A raft of commitments remains unhonored [and] Catholics live with the reality that unionist death squads are seemingly allowed to act with impunity.”

An Oct. 20 editorial in Dublin’s Sunday Business Post likewise lay the blame for the current crisis on the unionists: “Maybe Sinn Fein was spying. But in the real political world, who cares? Everyone in the North spies on each other. The whole episode provides no more than the slipperiest moral high ground to the unionists. But beyond all these shenanigans is a political reality that London and Dublin must now come to accept: The current crisis in unionism is being directly created by the Belfast Agreement itself. Despite the fact that it affords them a constitutional veto—enshrined not only in British but in Irish law—and that the entire edifice is founded on the concept of nationalist political consent, the political demons in their heads will not go away.”

Richard English, writing in the November issue of Fortnight, a Belfast-based cultural magazine, saw flaws with the way the Good Friday Agreement was sold: “First it was sold to people on very different terms. Republicans were encouraged to vote for it because it represented a transition toward a united Ireland; unionists were told to vote for it because it guaranteed the exact reverse….Now most of the political difficulties in Northern Ireland over the last four years have resulted from the interaction of both these problems.”

A significant move by the IRA on the arms issue would indicate its willingness to participate fully in the democratic process. But such a move would require the IRA to ignore the provocations of those with an interest in seeing a peaceful solution fail. As Susan McKay, writing in the Nov. 3 edition of Dublin’s independent Sunday Tribune, put it, unionist paramilitaries “are doing their very worst” to provoke the IRA to break its cease-fire and scupper what remains of the peace process.

Moreover, there is a centuries-old tradition of Irish nationalists hiding weapons. After an unsuccessful 1798 rebellion by Irish peasants armed with pikes, during which 20,000 rebels died, survivors placed their pikes in the roofs of their thatched cottages. It was as a sign of both their defiance and their willingness to fight again. According to Roy Foster, an Irish historian at Oxford University, “The hidden weapon as a symbol of continuous resistance remains as powerful as ever.”

Symbols aside, Sinn Fein cannot afford to lose what it has gained under the Good Friday Agreement. In order to salvage the peace process, it will need to signal its commitment to the agreement’s principle that the parties should not retain private armies. There are indications such a signal may be coming soon. Recently, Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein minister for education, admitted his IRA past and said that his “war was over. My job as a political leader is to prevent war,” McGuinness explained. “My job is to continue to ensure a set of political circumstances which will never again see British soldiers or members of the IRA lose their lives. I feel very passionate about that….It is a political project, not a military one,” he said. 

In a Nov. 3 editorial, The Sunday Tribune joined those who cheered his candor: “The hope must be that other republicans follow this line publicly and match their words with deeds.”