By Jack Holland
The latest crisis in the Irish peace process is yet another reminder that while the “war” in Northern Ireland might be over, the conflict continues. Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble asked Britain to create a mechanism for punishing Sinn Fein for alleged IRA breeches of its cease-fire — or else. Or else what?
Trimble did not say, but the thinking is, that if by the autumn the British have not come up with something that will satisfy Unionists and ease their jitters, Trimble might be forced to boycott the assembly, or at the very least effectively shut down the cross-border bodies by barring Sinn Fein’s participation, as he did once before. The other alternative is a change of leadership for the Unionist Party.
Ulster Unionist jitters are caused by the fact that come September the party will be thinking in an election mode, as will their rivals on the Unionist side, the anti-Good Friday agreement Democratic Unionist Party. If the British are not seen as being tough enough on the paramilitaries, it could lead to the final collapse of what support remains for the Good Friday agreement among the North’s Protestants, which in turn would mean pro-agreement parties like the UUP would be punished at the polling booth. The nightmare vision for Trimble is to see his party ousted by the forces of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP as the dominant Unionist party in Northern Ireland.
Since 1994, and the declaration of the paramilitary cease-fires, the process has often taken the form of crisis management. In recent years, since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, each crisis has been largely brought about by Unionist perception that Sinn Fein and the IRA were not living up to the commitments republicans made in April 1998. For more than three years, the Unionists focused on the failure of the IRA to begin weapons decommissioning, forcing a shut down of the government twice because of a refusal to continue to share power with Sinn Fein. The argument was rather like a dialogue of the deaf and blind. Unionists reminded Sinn Fein that as signatories to the six Mitchell Principles they had committed themselves to “the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations,” while as signatories to the agreement they had promised to influence the IRA to start decommissioning. Sinn Fein would reply that they were committed to these goals and were doing their best to bring them about, but that the IRA was a separate organization and could not be compelled to get rid of its weapons by threats. The IRA did eventually comply, in October of last year, with the first act of decommissioning, which was followed by in the spring by a second.
Since then, the argument has shifted ground, but the way it is being conducted is something of a repeat performance of the decommissioning debate. That is, the two side are talking past each other. The Unionists are claiming that there is a crisis in the peace process due to a series of incidents which shows, to their satisfaction, that the IRA is still active, gathering intelligence, acquiring weapons, and organizing violence. The incidents cited are the three republicans arrested in Colombia and accused of helping Colombian drug-financed rebels, the break-in of Castlereagh police station in which secret documents were stolen, and the riots in Short Strand during which shots were fired by republican gunmen.
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Sinn Fein has shrugged this off, denying the IRA has links to Colombia, or that the IRA was responsible for the Castlereagh incident. Sinn Fein further denies that there is a crisis in the peace process, and alleges instead that the real crisis is within Unionism. You say yes, I say no, does not make for an enlightening dialogue.
In one sense, both sides are right: There is a crisis within the peace process and there is a crisis within Unionism. They are not, after all, mutually exclusive assertions. The crisis within Unionism has been ongoing since about April 1969. Now it has simply reached an acute stage, as moderate Unionists lose faith in the agreement. This makes a crisis in the peace process inevitable anyway, whatever else happens. For if moderate Unionism disintegrates, then so does the peace process.
However, the underlying crisis in the peace process has to do with the nature of republicanism and the transition that it is going through. Crises within Unionism take place in public and can be seen by anybody who cares to notice, since the UUP is a democratic party. Crises in republicanism take place behind closed doors, since the IRA is a secret society, and are rarely made public unless there is a split and one faction peels off to form another organization. The current crisis for republicanism has got to do with the IRA and what to do with it. As Sinn Fein and the IRA become increasingly embedded in the political process, inevitably questions will arise as to the purpose and function of the armed wing. These questions become acute when something like the arrests of three republicans in Colombia occurs, or the IRA is seen to be falling back into its old role as Catholic defender, as has been alleged it did during the recent Short Strand riots.
For Unionists, it is clearly not enough for the IRA to respond to these questions by simple denials. Nor will another statement from the IRA leadership reassuring everybody that the IRA is “no threat to the peace process” be enough to satisfy Trimble as he faces the prospect of a bruising assembly election in May next year. His enemies inside his own party would not let him accept such a statement as sufficient reassurance that everything is dandy. Come September, if there is little else on offer, they will either remove Trimble from the leadership or force him to remove his party from the executive government in Belfast. In the meantime, the British government has promised to come up with something that will prevent this storm from breaking over his head. It will have to be a very sturdy umbrella indeed if Trimble is to weather this, his latest crisis.