Once upon a time about 800 years ago in a green and distant isle, a young clansman called Diarmaid was having trouble with his neighbours so he decided to invite one Mr Strongbow from across the water to help keep them in line.
Not the 13th centurys brightest idea as it turned out, the sea in question being the Irish one and Strongbow a not so nobleman from England, whose arrival heralded the beginning of what was to be eight centuries of colonisation with all the murder and mayhem that this implies. After centuries of false start movements and failed revolution Irish nationalism got serious at the turn of the century. The 1916 rising, though in itself a military fiasco, proved a potent symbol on which to build a revolutionary movement and led to the extraordinary rise of Sinn Fein, who by 1919 was the largest party on the island with a growing militant wing. A virtual declaration of independence quickly led to a war of independence, evolving into civil war over the controversial terms of the peace treaty with the British. The leading bone of contention was the exclusion of the northern part of the island from the fledgling Irish state. Partition of the country was at the political behest of the majority Protestant population who, loyal to the British crown, had no wish to join a Catholic nationalist state.
After independence the northern mini state was actively ignored by successive British administrations and, ominously for the nationalist minority, the unionist political elite were left to run the show. Fast-forward to the swinging sixties, the smell of revolution is in the air and northern Catholics, inspired by the likes of Luther King, take to the streets to shake off fifty years of dreary bigotry and discrimination.
The rest of the tale is sadly familiar. Demands for civil rights lead to civil strife, and latent Irish Republicanism and Unionist reaction fuse as the province slides into war.
Sunningdale, the province’s first attempt at power sharing in 1974, and on which the current model is roughly based, collapsed under the weight of a massive Unionist strike. There would be ten more years of dirty war before the rise of Sinn Fein as the political wing of the IRA, which, under the direction of Gerry Adams, set the province on the long and winding road back to the sanity of a political settlement.
It is now almost ten years since the first historic IRA. ceasefire and almost five since the groundbreaking Good Friday agreement, the accord that set out the political future of the province.
After five years of stalling, suspensions, disputes, court battles and of course violence and civil unrest the agreement seems dangerously close to disintegration and death by a thousand cuts. Earlier this year David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists (UUP) the largest party in the province, walked out of the power sharing assembly in protest at continued IRA activity, most notoriously an alleged spy ring close to the heart of government, thus triggering a return to direct rule from Westminster. Trimble’s conditions for a return include the virtual disbandment of the IRA, a concession that Sinn Fein is unlikely, unwilling and probably unable to make. In the absence of any agreement last month’s elections to the assembly were postponed. Suspicions that postponement came at the tacit behest of Trimble, who of all the players had most to lose by going to the polls, has not helped the credibility of the democratic process.
In a province so politically polarised, where unionists and nationalists vote en block, the political action is often hottest within rather than between these divided communities.
It is these very tensions and the resulting shifts in power that will shape events in the months and years ahead, indeed the next election, provisionally set for the autumn, will perhaps be the defining moment for the life or death of the peace process in its current form.
In the Unionist camp, support for the Good Friday agreement has ebbed steadily since it’s signing. Recently, however, support has gone into freefall. UUP leader Trimble, one of the architects of the agreement, is in dire political trouble. Three years of ceaseless internal divisions and countless rebellions from the anti agreement members of the party have left him critically, if not fatally, wounded. After surviving another challenge to his strategy recently Trimble finally suspended his three leading tormentors, an action unlikely to heal divisions in the short term but seen as vital to retaining Trimble’s credibility as leader of a rapidly imploding party. Long the dominant unionist grouping in the province, its position at the centre of what is increasingly viewed as a failed process has seen the Ulster Unionist Party take a battering at the polls. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been the principal beneficiary and is gaining fast.
Were the not entirely unlikely to happen and the DUP became the largest Unionist party at the next election, their publicly avowed policy of renegotiation of the whole deal could spell the death knell of the Good Friday agreement. A further complication is the increasingly volatile Unionist paramilitaries for whom the peace process has been an unmitigated disaster. Unlike the IRA, loyalist paramilitary groups never established a political power base that would give them a seat at the table when the time came to talk. Consequently, in the elections to the new power-sharing assembly their hastily constructed political fronts made almost no impact against the UUP and the DUP. As their marginalisation increases, so does frustration and it is no surprise that in recent years loyalist paramilitaries have been responsible for much of the sporadic violence in the province, not only against nationalists but, even more spectacularly, amongst themselves.
In the late sixties there was only one major political force on the nationalist side, The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a moderate constitutional party. The IRA until the late seventies retained a lofty distain for the workings of the political process. Then along came Sinn Fein. Very much the brainchild of Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein were born of the horror that was the H block hunger strikes of ´81 when IRA prisoners refused food to protest the stripping of their prisoner of war status by Margaret Thatcher. In a classic case of winning the battle and losing the war Thatcher refused to bend as ten prisoners, one after another, slipped into a coma and died. The anger and bitterness of the protest reenergised a waning PIRA for another ten years of low intensity warfare and helped put Sinn Fein firmly on the political map. Adams twin track strategy of the armalight and the ballot box was born.
From a low of less than 8% in the 1984 elections, Sinn Fein have climbed to almost 18% of the province’s vote, overtaking the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in last British general election. As Sinn Fein considers itself an all Ireland party, its long hoped for breakthrough in the Republic of Ireland, picking up five seats in the last election, has brought particular satisfaction and more importantly, vindication for Adams ceasefire strategy.
As ever Sinn Fein’s relationship with the IRA is at the heart of the dispute with Unionism. To fully understand the current impasse it’s important to remember the accepted reality behind the rhetoric. Just as nationalists, without of course having to say so, were tacitly accepting the union with Britain in return for an affairs deal within the province, moderate Unionism tacitly accepted that it was not in the perimeters of the political gift of even Adams to wind up a deeply ingrained paramilitary organisation in an instant, and that the disappearance of the IRA would be a gradual process. Moderate unionists, in reality at least, were not demanding a complete inactivity but, at least, the appearance of it assuming that Sinn Fein and the IRA are still committed to the implementation of the agreement. Embarrassing fiascos like the arrest of three IRA members in Columbia that have made Trimble’s position within Unionism all but untenable is hardly good news for Republicans either. However, there are, one suspects, many devotees within Republicanism of the zero sum game theory; that Unionist turmoil whatever its source is somehow good news for Nationalists.
This notion of a zero sum game brings us to the ultimate sticking point on which this or any other agreement could well flounder. Because of Unionisms long-standing dominance in the province there is an inevitable feeling within that community that they have everything to lose and nothing to gain and vice versa for the Nationalists. Support for the agreement, holding steady in the high 80s on the nationalist side and now well below 50% among Unionists would seem to bare out this perception. And in a divided community like Northern Ireland, full of tension, argument and violence, potential perception is everything.