All process and no politics

For all the recurring crises, Northern Ireland's peace process seems to go on forever.

British prime minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern flew into Belfast on 21 October 2003, expecting to announce a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The day started off on an optimistic note. At 7.10 the British government announced that elections to the suspended Assembly would take place on 26 November, paving the way for a return of devolution to Northern Ireland. A Downing Street spokesperson declared: ‘Potentially, this could be the most significant day in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement.’ (1)

A statement by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams at 10.30 was well received. At 14.15, the IRA announced that a significant act of decommissioning of weapons had taken place. General John De Chastelain confirmed this act of decommissioning at 16.00, providing vague details of the extent of the weaponry involved.

At 17.20 Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble announced that he would not provide his anticipated statement on the restoration of the power-sharing Assembly, because there had been no ‘clear transparent report of major acts of decommissioning of a nature which would have a significant impact on public opinion’ (2). Ten hours after it was announced the expected breakthrough was dead in the water. When Blair and Ahern emerged to make a public statement at 20.40 it was only to confirm what everyone already knew - the latest attempt to get the peace process going had failed.

Yet the sense of crisis that comes through in the media coverage of these events is hard to find among the people of Northern Ireland. The news of a potential breakthrough and eventual collapse has dominated the headlines for days, but it has bypassed the electorate. Glenn Patterson points out that as he went through his daily routine around Belfast, ‘Not one person mentioned the morning’s political developments…. When the Good Friday Agreement was reached…we were at least talking, ringing friends, people who had once drunkenly scribbled their names on beer mats’ (3).

But recent events, which appeared so significant to outsiders, were treated with scepticism by most of the communities of Northern Ireland. People here did not have their hopes dashed, because they never had their hopes raised in the first place.

This apathetic response is a product of the peace process itself, rather than of the failure of the peace process. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 involved compromise between former enemies. In order to promote the deal, the leaders of Unionism and nationalism have moved from relying on grassroots support to offering allegiance to the peace process; they have had to demobilise their activists and supporters from a ‘conflict orientation’ and ‘re-educate’ them in the realities of peace.

Dr Paul Dixon of the University of Ulster argues that political elites have employed a range of deceptions (‘choreography and play-acting’, ‘hard cop/soft cop’ tactics, ‘constructive ambiguity’ and ‘necessary fictions’) to sell the Agreement to Northern Ireland’s voters (4). The latest attempt to kickstart the peace process maintains this basic distrust of the electorate and guarded mode of delivery. Journalist Kevin Toolis argues: ‘In Northern Ireland the devil is always in the political detail and those details are always deemed too dangerous to be revealed in public. But if you decode the hidden messages, Mr Adams in republican-speak is indeed saying that the IRA leadership is prepared to trade more gestures on decommissioning, and the final winding down of the IRA’s “army”, for a quick return to Stormont.’ (5)

Toolis may or may not be right; it is difficult to discern the motives of the political elites. Trimble and Adams may simply have misunderstood what each other were saying. It is also possible that Trimble agreed to the deal that republicans delivered, but when the moment arrived his advisers told him that the deal was unsellable.

Or the collapse could all be part of a republican game plan to sow confusion among Unionists and reap the electoral rewards. Republicans have the elections that they wanted, where Sinn Fein is likely to become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland - and if the British government renege on the election date republicans can claim that the British are not committed to democracy.

Each of these scenarios could be the real one, or maybe not. The problem is that there is no way of telling. When politics is treated as a private matter for elites why should ordinary folk be interested? People have turned away from the public sphere and are more interested in private matters.

Patterson captures this well: ‘The Good Friday Agreement made us all feel like actors in the big picture. The talks of past days, involving only two of the local parties, added to the growing suspicion that most of us were only ever extras. That Northern Ireland has changed for the better in the interim is everywhere apparent…. Stores that wouldn’t have dreamed of moving here at the height of the conflict have come, and in some cases, gone. Forget post-ceasefire, we are living in the post-Habitat era now.’ (6)

In this context, traditional nationalist and Unionist mutual distrust has become subsumed within distrust of the political process itself. A survey carried out by Colin Irwin of Queen’s University Belfast found that ‘trust… is in “free fall” for all the pro-Agreement parties, and for the British and Irish governments, in both the Protestant and Catholic communities’ (the survey didn’t ask about anti-Agreement parties).

In 1999, 37 per cent of Protestants trusted the parties and governments ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’; by 2003 this had dropped to 17 per cent. For Catholics, the average fell from 48 per cent in 1999 to 34 per cent in 2003. All political parties are trusted less today than four years ago - even parties such as the Women’s Coalition and Alliance, which have tried to stand outside the traditional nationalist/Unionist divide (7).

The privatisation of politics has also impacted on political elites. One reason why it is difficult to read the actions of Trimble and Adams is that it is difficult to discern their objectives. Are republicans trying to bring about a united Ireland by political means, or are they trying to promote the peace process? In the context of the peace process, it isn’t even clear whether these two objectives are compatible or mutually exclusive.

It is clear that the war is over - but the peace process allows it to continue in another form. But it is not clear whether the ongoing political struggles are shadow boxing or part of a real contest. This is not just a problem for elites trying to decipher the actions of their opponents - it also means that the stances of various actors are always contingent. Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd note that in this political landscape of shadows and mirrors, ‘it is rational for political actors to hold open several possibilities and to move between positions depending on the needs of the political conjuncture’ (8).

The underlying reason for this is that the pro-Agreement parties have made their objectives subservient to the peace process. Republicans present the Agreement as the means by which they will achieve a united Ireland; pro-Agreement Unionists claim that it secures the future of Northern Ireland within the Union. The process is the means through which they seek to attain their objectives. But this ties them to keeping the process going - and so their primary goal is simply to maintain the process.

Consequently, the peace process has become an indestructible force that rises above the actions of any particular individual or group. It has become objectified as an entity in its own right. The relationship that the population of Northern Ireland - elites and ordinary people - have to the peace process is like that of subjects to a monarch. We defer to and do not question its authority. In return, the process stands aloof, smiling benevolently, assured that it is acting in our best interests. The peace process is dead. Long live the peace process!

Chris Gilligan is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Ulster. He contributed a chapter to Rethinking Human Rights, edited by David Chandler, Palgrave 2002 (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). He is currently editing a special issue of the journal Global Review of Ethnopolitics on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

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(1) ‘Day in quotes’, BBC News

(2) ‘Day in quotes’, BBC News

(3) Extras in a post-Habitat era, Glenn Patterson, Guardian, 22 October 2003

(4) ‘Political skills or lying and manipulation?’, by Paul Dixon, Political Studies (2002), Vol. 50, pp. 725-741

(5) The same old story but the End is in sight, by Kevin Toolis, The Times (London), 22 October 2003

(6) Extras in a post-Habitat era, Glenn Patterson, Guardian, 22 October 2003

(7) Devolution and the state of the Northern Ireland peace process, by Colin Irwin, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, Vol. 2, No. 3-4

(8) ‘The Politics of Transition?’, by Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, Political Studies (2001), Vol. 49, p. 935.

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