The North has survived another perilous 12th of July, and so has the peace process. It was widely predicted that it would come apart under pressure because of riotous nationalist responses to the yearly Orange triumphalism. The fact that the riots did not get out of hand in North Belfast — the expected flashpoint — was in no small measure due to the direct intervention of leading members of the IRA, who were seen to physically intervene with the young stone and bottle throwers to prevent them from hurling their missiles. They did this under the watchful eyes of hundreds of soldiers and members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, a remarkable event that only a few years ago would have been deemed impossible.
These developments come just a week before the British House of Commons is due to hold a debate on Northern Ireland. The prime minister, Tony Blair, has promised the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, that he will come up with a formula to satisfy Unionist demands that Sinn Fein somehow be punished for a series of alleged acts involving the IRA. It is expected that he will announce this formula during the debate. Suggestions are that the British will come up with a redefinition of the cease-fire to make it clearer when it is being, in their judgment, violated. The other suggestion is that the government will ask all the parties to recommit themselves to the six Mitchell principles of nonviolence, which they, supposedly, adopted at the beginning of the inclusive talks.
There is nothing wrong with either of these measures. But they should not be postdated to punish Sinn Fein for any actions the IRA might or might not have committed three months ago, or a year ago. Punishment that only makes the situation worse is folly, and excessive. London has just announced over a billion pounds worth of funding for the North, representing an annual increase of 3.3 percent over the next three years. The last thing that is needed is for Sinn Fein to be expelled and the assembly pulled down for the third time, with the reimposition of direct rule. That would precipitate another crisis that the process does not need and from which it might not, this time, recover.
A government collapse would undermine nationalist confidence in the process, and convince that section of the community that the Unionists are not interested in doing business with them. At the same time, it would only fuel the anti-agreement wing of Unionism with greater hopes of finally undoing the progress that had been made up until now.
It is surely better to build on what has been achieved already, rather than to be forever engaged in the carping politics of recrimination and blame.
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