By Jack Holland
The devolved assembly is up and running. However, it has several brick walls — both real and potential — in its path which it will require some skill and luck to avoid or leap over, if a collision is to be averted, as the small bomb under Hammersmith Bridge in London last week reminded us.
It exploded, apparently harmlessly, in the early hours of Thursday morning, June 1, two days after power was formally restored to the assembly. Deputy Ulster Unionist Party leader John Taylor immediately blamed dissident republicans, either of the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA variety, though at the time he made his accusation no one had claimed responsibility for the bombing. Both groups have been ardently trying to build brick walls blocking progress toward a settlement for several years. So far they have failed. It is probable that they will continue to fail.
Since August 1998, when a RIRA bomb slaughtered 29 people in Omagh, neither the RIRA nor the CIRA have shown the capacity to mount and sustain a campaign of terror. First of all, they face the hostility of the vast majority of nationalists, and without some at least tacit support in that quarter they cannot hope to survive for long. To use Chairman Mao’s analogy, they are fish without water.
Secondly, the immense resources of the Irish and British state and their security apparatuses are now directed more or less exclusively against the two organizations. The Irish and British intelligence-gathering agencies managed to hobble and eventually defeat the Provisional IRA, which had vastly more resources at its disposal than either CIRA or the Real IRA and — most important of all — also commanded a certain amount of tacit support in the nationalist population. Anyone still in even marginal contact with reality must realize how ultimately futile then are the current efforts by republican splinter groups to relaunch the "armed campaign."
There is one scenario which could throw up a brick wall big enough to cause a major collision. If as has happened in past republican disputes that have led to splintering one side decides to attack its former comrades, an escalation would follow which would seriously threaten the peace process. But the very fact that neither the RIRA or the CIRA has made any serious move in this direction is another indication of the real weakness of their position in relation to the mainstream republican movement and the nationalist community as a whole. This is not a replay of 1969 when the Provisionals were born nor, even less, of 1974, when the Irish National Liberation Army emerged from the Official IRA.
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A more serious brick wall, with the potential to block forward movement on the nationalist side is the current dispute over Patten. Nationalists are united in alleging that the British government’s proposed bill on policing is, as one Irish government source described it, "but a pale reflection of Patten," watering down or ignoring altogether some of the original recommendations of the independent commission’s report published last September. The bill has yet to make its way through the House of Commons and there is plenty of scope — at least in parliamentary terms — for revising the revisions. The SDLP has made the cause of saving Patten its own. If the British failed to respond to nationalist concerns, the SDLP would refuse to sit on Policing Boards and campaign against young Catholics joining the new force. This is turn would see the collapse of one of the central issues in the Good Friday agreement — the need to make the police force acceptable to both sides of the community, of which the Patten proposals were the fruit.
The difficulty is that as yet it is not known how far the British mortgaged Patten to buy Unionist support for returning to government with Sinn Fein. If the government attempts to address nationalist concerns, it will inevitably risk provoking further UUP defections to the anti-agreement ranks and thus undermine Trimble’s position as first minister in the new government. And here we arrive at the thickest and highest brick wall of all.
Since 1998 Trimble has suffered a steady erosion of support within Unionist ranks, if measured by the vote in the party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council. In 1998, he commanded 71 percent of the more than 800 delegate votes. By February this year, it had fallen to 57 percent. By May, it stood at 53.
Inside the assembly itself, Trimble’s hold on his party is looser than ever. Four UUP assembly members have deserted the pro-agreement camp in recent months — Peter Weir, Pauline Armitage, Derek Hussey, and Roy Beggs Jr. While they may not vote with the anti-agreement unionists, potentially it gives that faction 32 seats — a majority of Unionist assembly members. It means, in effect, that Trimble is no longer the leader of the Unionist majority. Thus he finds himself in a similar situation to Terence O’Neill and Brian Faulkner, two other Unionist reformers and moderates who found that they had alienated a majority of their own constituency in an attempt to create a cross-community consensus. If the four UUP defectors were to vote with the Rev. Ian Paisley-led anti-agreement faction, it would give them enough votes to bring motions to the floor for debate. Though under the rules of the assembly it is unlikely that any of these motions would pass (since they require 40 percent of nationalist members’ support) it could be extremely disruptive as it ties up assembly business and wastes time.
However, the hope is that given the traditional animosity between the UUP and Paisley it is unlikely that dissident UUP members would allow themselves to be consistently used in this way against their own party.
Mention of Paisley brings us to another brick wall — one that has stood in the way of every attempt to reach accommodation in the North since the mid-1960s. It was a brick wall that seemed to be crumbling. But it has survived, partly because arguments employed against other politicians opposed to the agreement do not seem to apply to Paisley. As David McKittrick has pointed put, it is no use saying to Paisley, "Well, what is your alternative to the agreement?" He does not have one, but that has not stopped him in the past from successfully overthrowing other attempts at reform — most disastrously in 1969 and 1974. Nor does he care what the outside world says or thinks of him. And he hasn’t gone away.