Northern Ireland: Trimbling at the brink?
The first minister has gone - but the peace process, and the instability it brings, will go on.
So David Trimble has resigned as first minister, the future of the Northern Ireland assembly looks uncertain, and the Irish peace process is on the ‘edge of the abyss’. Again.
Since it was kickstarted in 1993, the Northern Ireland peace process seems to have been in a state of terminal crisis. Every flare-up – whether over IRA decommissioning, Orange parades, sectarian riots or the release of political prisoners – has had its turn in pushing the peace process ‘closer to collapse’. Now, as one headline argued yesterday, ‘Trimble’s exit takes Ulster to the brink’ (1).
In one sense, the doom-laden reports have a point. Instability, violent clashes and increasing sectarianism have been par for the course since the peace process got under way nearly 10 years ago. But such instability is not a deviation from the peace process that only more peace process courtesy of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern can resolve – it is a result of the peace process.
The Irish peace process has instability built in. With its aim of containing the conflict rather than resolving it, the peace process draws the parties into a dialogue without resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences – what one commentator refers to as the ‘brush-it-under-the-carpet’ approach to conflict resolution. In short, it’s all process and no peace.
Consider how the forward march of the peace process has robbed both Unionism and nationalism of their rationale. Unionist parties cut their teeth by defending the link between Britain and Northern Ireland against the threat posed by republicans. Now that no such threat exists, Unionists often seem to lack a sense of purpose and direction.
On the other side, republicans have ditched the principles on which their movement has been based since the early 1900s. The movement that was born with the aim of getting Britain out of Ireland now, in practice, accepts its position as a minority party within the six counties of Northern Ireland – to the extent that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams increasingly couches his demands in terms of minority rights and protecting vulnerable nationalists from nasty loyalists.
This emptying out of politics explains some of the ‘shock’ results at the general election. Trimble’s pro-Agreement Ulster Unionist Party lost five seats, while Ian Paisley’s anti-Agreement Democratic Unionist Party gained three, as disaffected Unionists expressed their concern about the ‘deprioritisation of protecting the Union’ (2). And Sinn Fein doubled its Westminster seats to four, while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) stayed the same. As Sinn Fein becomes a moderate nationalist party whose main aim is to forward the peace process, the SDLP is losing its distinct role as a moderate nationalist party whose main aim is to forward the peace process.
With the big national question off the agenda, the parties in Northern Ireland have turned to identity and culture. Unionists and nationalists once clashed over the fundamental question of whether Northern Ireland was Irish or British – now they’re more likely to get heated about the right to have their street signs in their own language (whether it be Gaelic or Ulster Scots), and that their past suffering receive the ‘recognition’ it deserves. But such clashes are more like shadow boxing than the real thing, where nothing of political substance is ever thrashed out or resolved.
So the hope that the peace process would end sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland – like those witnessed in the recent clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast – was shortlived. If anything, it has exacerbated them.
The Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Assembly that it initiated institutionalise sectarian divisions. But you didn’t need a crystal ball to predict this would happen – it is written in the Agreement itself. The Agreement states that, ‘At their first meeting members of the assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, Unionist or other – for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in assembly votes’. The assembly freezes different identities in law rather than attempting to get rid of them, where politicians and community activists stake out their sectarian positions as a way of ‘being heard’ – hardly a recipe for overcoming the sectarian divide.
As a result, Northern Ireland is becoming more sectarian, not less, with sectarian clashes on the rise. The conflict is no longer a political one over sovereignty and the right to rule, but has been reduced to its most base, atavistic, sectarian elements. Just look at the recent bout of church burnings – during the conflict, when there was a political clash, church burnings were relatively rare; over the past year they have been more widespread.
Nor is the peace process about giving people what they want. Following the sectarian clashes in Belfast in June, SDLP leader John Hume reiterated his call for the Northern Ireland assembly to be reconvened in a neutral country like Finland or Norway – in other words, as far away from the people of Northern Ireland as possible.
And when Northern Ireland secretary John Reid met anti-Agreement parties for talks after the general election, he repeated a line first put forward by his predecessor Peter Mandelson – ‘there is no Plan B’. In short, there is no other choice but the Good Friday Agreement, no alternative but the Northern Ireland assembly, no way forward other than the peace process. The DUP might have won three extra seats and 23 percent of the vote on the basis of opposing the Agreement, but tough – the Agreement is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.
In what must be the most staged resignation ever (announced months in advance and carried out at one minute past midnight – 00.01 on Sunday 1 July – as promised), Trimble has gone. But the peace process – and the instability it brings – will go on.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
Northern Ireland election: a done deal, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Guardian, 2 July 2001
(2) DUP press release, 11 June 2001
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