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Op-Ed:The peace process: a story of lost promise

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Patrick Farrelly

“The only thing any Irish political leader has the authority, moral or otherwise, to negotiate with the British government is exactly how long it will take the British to dismantle partition and withdraw its forces and administration from our country.”

– Gerry Adams

It all seems like such a long time ago now. Let’s go back to Aug. 31, 1994. After Gerry Adams announced the IRA cease-fire outside Connolly House in Andersonstown, Belfast, a cavalcade of cars, tri-colors waving, trailed up and down the Falls Road honking their horns. In the usual blend of mixed signals that has come to characterize the Adams leadership, it was not clear what the celebration was about.

Obviously there was the expectation of peace, but, more important, there was the word from on high that a deal had been done, the British wanted out, and the cease-fire would ease the eventual exit. There was only one discordant note. A prominent Sinn FTiner I met on the street that day was shaking his head about a quote attributed to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: “The war is over; the good guys have lost.” He was exasperated. “She just doesn’t get it, because she hasn’t been party to the discussions. She’s out of the loop,” he said knowingly.

The “word” that day was clear if unstated by Sinn FTin officialdom. The IRA had not called a cease-fire without some high-level deal from the British, and the prisoners would start being released at Christmas. Since then, Christmases have come and gone but a number of things have become very clear. There never was any deal with the British and the IRA cease-fire was just that and no more. And the prisoners are where prisoners tend to be, in prison.

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When the recent Belfast Agreement was announced, there were no celebratory cavalcades. But on a larger scale, the international media celebrated the end of conflict because, unlike the many false dawns before, the Republicans were on board this time.

The details of the deal, however, didn’t get much analysis. In a replay of the reaction to the IRA cease-fire announcement, the presumption was clear: if Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were in favor of this, then there must be good, if not great, things in it for Irish nationalists. The fall-back position for this “argument” is crude but simple: they got the best they could and, besides, the only alternative is war, and who wants that?

But what’s this agreement really about? It is, in essence, a classic internal settlement. What makes it an improvement on the old Stormont regime is the elected assembly’s power-sharing executive. That gives Northern Nationalists an internal veto over the traditional excesses of Unionist government. In return, Unionism has been given a veto over a united Ireland. In other words, the Republicans have ended up with the agreement they told their supporters they would never accept, a partitionist one.

Adding insult to injury, Articles Two and Three will also be lost in this deal. This change puts Nationalists living in the North on the same level as the far-flung Irish diaspora.

The much-vaunted cross-border bodies are pale shadows of those outlined in the Framework Document. It is important to remember that those strong, independent cross-border bodies were said by the Adams leadership to be the absolute bottom line in any agreement. That was so because they saw them as having an inevitable, if long-term, united Ireland dynamic. But David Trimble has effectively negotiated them out of existence. He has replaced them with neutered bodies that have no independent executive powers, and whose activities, growth and development will be controlled by the Unionists through their assembly veto. Trimble also managed to eliminate all those bodies that dealt with economic issues, leaving such matters as aquaculture, animal health and social security fraud in their jurisdiction.

The prisoners could be out in two years if the IRA behaves itself – that’s nearly six years after the August ’94 cease-fire. It can be argued that if the IRA had simply ended its campaign, dumped its arms and not bothered with a peace process – like it did after the 1956-62 campaign – the prisoners would have been out earlier. At the end of that campaign, they were freed after 17 months. We might also have hung onto Articles Two and Three and not given away the whole constitution shop to Unionism.

The question of the RUC has, crucially, been put on the long finger. Policing is in the hands of a commission, and a careful reading of the wording of its remit shows that it could end up doing nothing at all. The same goes for equality, an issue in Northern Ireland where words and what they really mean usually have a distant relationship.

So how did the peace process strategy, which promised so much, produce so little? The flaw lay in the strategy itself, to a degree that the sorry conclusion we have arrived at was pre-ordained from the very beginning. The Sinn FTin alliance with the Irish government and John Hume was supposed to pressure the British into doing a radical rethink on Northern Ireland. This alliance was pursued despite the knowledge that the Irish government and the SDLP had never shown any interest in confronting Unionism or the British government over Nationalist rights in Ireland. Their interests were much narrower: ending the IRA campaign and patching together an internal settlement.

The honeymoon period – Gerry Adams in the White House, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document – were really more about getting an IRA cease-fire than anything else. The longer the cease-fire lasted the less viable the return to war became for the IRA – there would be a public opinion backlash against Sinn FTin and it would lose its new friends in high places. And to put it crudely, the more distant the war option became for the Provos, the more their negotiating leverage waned. At the end, when the British and Irish governments and the SDLP were caving in to David Trimble, Sinn FTin had nowhere else to go.

All that was left was to be responsible politicians and settle down to the grim realities of life. And of course, there was necessity for spin control. By any criteria the whole strategy has been a disaster, so all the more reason to portray if not as a success, then surely the best that anyone could get.

Sinn FTin must now decide what to do with the power-sharing executive seats that will surely be on offer. They can take a confrontational attitude in government with Trimble and risk bringing the whole house down or they can work constructively with their old adversaries. You can bet on the latter. This is a well-trodden path in Irish politics – Fianna F_il and the Workers Party have been here already – and history shows that the system changes revolutionaries much more than they change it.

So was there any alternative to the grim choices of war or constitutional Nationalism that everyone seems to insist are the only options? Since the Troubles began every establishment force in Ireland had told us that the only real obstacle to peace and progress was the IRA campaign. There was a time when the Republican Movement could have taken the non-violent option, exposed that fallacy, and turned to the grassroots organizing of its own people against the Northern Ireland state. The great changes in Northern Ireland have always come when the Nationalist people took matters into their own hands. The Republican leadership decided instead to make its peace with the establishment, and put its fate in people whose interests and objectives were always contrary to everything its traditions stood for. How could the end result have been anything but an abject failure?

(The writer is a longtime New York journalist and televison producer.)

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