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The ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland, held up repeatedly in the last decade as an example for other conflict zones to follow, has less and less to show for it–unless you quite legitimately count a bomb, bullet and body count that remains negligible as a major achievement. Otherwise, the political institutions that have been set up so gingerly and, some would say, with such willful disregard for their fragility are visibly collapsing, and the threat of serious renewed violence cannot be ignored.
The ‘marching season’ is drearily upon us again. This year it brings the news that the senior cop who has ‘handled’ the annual face-off over a parade route at Drumcree is being reassigned to more promising work in Basra. The yearly disputes in and around the Glorious Twelfth of July, and over where and how the events of 313 years ago should be commemorated by unionists, are just an Orangey distraction from the sorry state of ‘democracy’ in the North. Local ‘devolved’ government for the region has collapsed, and this corner of Ireland is now once again under British direct rule.
The news is not entirely bad if you’re a supporter of Sinn Fein. The party that shares a ‘movement’ and numerous personnel with the Provisional IRA may not have got the chance to show its strength when the scheduled May assembly elections were postponed by Tony Blair, but there’s little doubt that it has achieved an authority bordering on dominance in nationalist areas in the nine years since its first ceasefire. (It had already dominated the poorest Catholic districts of the North at election time, but its role has expanded and reached into more of the community’s institutions in the last decade.)
Some non-Sinn Fein republicans and nationalists grumble that Sinn Fein hegemony is worse than the one it replaces, that of the combined forces of the Catholic Church and John Hume’s SDLP. Sinn Fein, they say, is less tolerant of dissent, and the presence in the party of undoubtedly genuine socialist and would-be-revolutionary activists means that members may genuinely fail to see the need for other people in those categories to oppose SF strategy. The phrase ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ has sprung to mind.
The difficulty apparently extends to Irish America. Two columnists, Patrick Farrelly and Eamon Lynch, recently resigned from the Irish Echo newspaper, alleging that Sinn Fein had pressured the paper’s publisher over material in their columns. Lynch had raised questions about the West Belfast newspaper, the Andersonstown News, and its adherence to the SF line; Farrelly had, among other things, cited issues raised by an excellent book, A Secret History of the IRA, by Ed Moloney, a hugely experienced journalist and particular bete noir of the party.
Two SF ministers had shared a cabinet table in the Northern Ireland Executive before it collapsed with the other power-sharing institutions last year, essentially over unionist discontent about the pace and significance of IRA decommissioning. Notwithstanding the party’s strategic participation in such a partition-based government–something that was anathema to the republican movement in the past–it is hosting public meetings this summer that breezily point the way forward from such ‘transitional’ arrangements to a united Ireland in time for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, in 2016.
While Sinn Fein tries to keep its grassroots green with such an optimistic assessment of the situation, the largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionists, is in disarray. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement on power-sharing, largely supported by nationalists, was only ever marginally favoured by unionists. While Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists opposed the agreement, the support of David Trimble’s UUP was essential to start and sustain devolved institutions; Trimble picked up the post of ‘First Minister’ to set beside his Nobel Peace Prize. However, a series of challenges to Trimble have revealed that he can count on the support of about 55 per cent of his party even when he is offering only the most lukewarm backing to the agreement. Three MPs who have consistently opposed him have now been suspended from the party, and are taking court challenges against the suspension. Taking both big parties and their factions into account, it is clear that unionism clearly opposes the continuation of power-sharing in current circumstances, by substantial margins.
Also on the unionist side, the small, left-talking parties with links to loyalist paramilitaries have seen their public support wither, and with that has come a series of feud-related killings and a sense that armed groups see little to lose in a return to violence.
With Sinn Fein standing tall, the IRA has much more to lose by violence. (See my recent article about Stakeknife, the alleged informer in its midst.) Despite some arms finds and bomb interceptions, the immediate threat posed by dissidents in the Real IRA and Continuity IRA seems small–the alleged leader of the former group is currently on trial in the Republic. But the Provisionals’ leadership wants to avoid any suggestion of surrender, and has been very slow so far to accept any disarmament terms that seem to be set by unionists as a precondition for re-entering government.
Like previous stand-offs, it is quite possible that some interim solution will be found to (in Gerry Adams’ favourite phrase) "move the process forward". However, there is no sign of a solution that begins to break the logic of sectarian politics; indeed, sectarianism is built into the structures of government set up by the Good Friday Agreement, relying as they do on ‘power-sharing’ between groups defined by religion or, if you prefer, national affiliation. Expect to see the North portrayed in future as, at best, a containable security problem, rather than as an example of post-conflict democracy in action.
HARRY BROWNE writes for The Irish Times and is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at email@example.com