The edge of the abyss…again

Northern Ireland's peace process will survive, because nobody has anywhere else to go.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘It might seem that Northern Ireland’s experiment with power-sharing is always hanging by a thread [and] permanently on the brink of the abyss’, says BBC Ireland correspondent Kevin Connolly. ‘But this time, let there be no mistake – the thread is thinner and the abyss a little deeper.’ (1)

This argument has been doing the rounds: that the latest revelations to rock Northern Ireland, involving Sinn Fein officials allegedly passing sensitive government information from inside the Northern Ireland Assembly to the IRA, are the real thing – the crisis that could finally push Northern Ireland from troubled peace back to plain old Troubles.

‘Even the little boy who cried wolf saw a wolf eventually’, writes Jonathan Freedland in the UK Guardian. ‘And that’s what Belfast detects just now.’ (2)

Does the ‘spying scandal’ really spell disaster for Northern Ireland’s ‘fragile peace’? If Sinn Fein members have been amassing secret government documents and memos – allegedly including transcripts of telephone chats between UK prime minister Tony Blair and US president George W Bush (3) – they aren’t alone. Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness has a point when he says that Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party ‘has leaked more government documents than I’ve had hot dinners’ (4).

Even if Sinn Fein passed information to the IRA, this isn’t likely to be the bombshell that many claim it is. Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade asks: ‘Does it really matter a damn if the IRA knows…the name of every serving prison officer, every policeman’s address, every ministerial security briefing? It hasn’t done anything about it and, most importantly, isn’t remotely likely to.’ (5) ‘So what?’, wrote one Irish commentator when he heard of the spying scandal. ‘Today’s IRA is more likely to issue an apology than a death threat.’

Far more striking than the spying scandal itself has been the reaction to it. The response to Northern Ireland’s self-induced political crises has become as predictable as the crises themselves. Whether it’s IRA decommissioning, Orange parades, the release of political prisoners or spying allegations, every issue has had its turn in apparently pushing the peace process ‘closer to collapse’ or to ‘the edge of the abyss’ or ‘beyond hope’.

The BBC’s Kevin Connolly is right to say that Northern Ireland always seems to be ‘permanently on the brink of the abyss’ – because every crisis, however small, gets blown out of proportion as a sign of Northern Ireland’s potential descent into violence (6).

In response to the spying scandal, one journalist claims that the ‘men of violence could fill the gap left by the suspension of the Assembly’, raising the prospect of ‘widespread conflict’. Another claims that the ‘underlying violence’ in Northern Irish politics could burst through if the Assembly collapses, as if Northern Ireland could return to all-out war any minute now.

Such claims show how many people think that not much has changed in Northern Ireland. They talk of a ‘shaky peace’ that could be easily shattered by burgeoning tensions between nationalists and Unionists, or a resurgence of ‘tribal hatreds’ between Northern Ireland’s divided communities, as if people in Northern Ireland are mystically driven by forces from history and only kept in check by the peace process.

In reality, the events of the past week show just how much Northern Ireland’s political landscape has shifted during 10 years of peace process. Far from signalling a return to the Troubles, the fallout from the spying scandal captures the exhaustion of both nationalism and Unionism, and the lack of political principle at the heart of the peace process.

Consider Sinn Fein’s response to the British government’s threats to suspend the Assembly. The republican movement once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland whose aim was to get British forces out of the Six Counties. Now Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has called on Tony Blair to use the ‘hands of history’ and to act as the ‘guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement’, the 1998 document that set up the Northern Ireland Assembly. ‘Blair has been good on the issue’, says Adams. ‘And the job of the British government is to minimise [any] damage.’ (7)

This from a man and a movement who once rejected the British government’s right to determine what should or shouldn’t happen in Irish affairs. Forget wild claims about republicans going back to war with British and Unionist forces – the republican movement now effectively accepts its position as just another political party representing Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in the peace process.

For their part, Unionist leaders have ditched any talk of the Union. Unionist parties may have cut their teeth by defending the link between Britain and Northern Ireland against the threat posed by republicans – but now that no such threat exists, Unionists often seem to lack any kind of defining mission. Like Sinn Fein, all Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble could say in the wake of the spying scandal was that ‘we must defend’ the Good Friday Agreement (8).

This is the Agreement that grants the Dublin government a measure of influence in Northern Irish affairs, something that would have been anathema to Unionists of old. Indeed, one way that Trimble is trying to ‘resolve the current crisis’ is by holding emergency talks with Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern about ‘Northern Ireland’s immediate future’ – capturing how Unionists have ditched many of their founding principles about Northern Ireland’s British status.

Even the police raid on Sinn Fein’s offices showed that much has changed. It may have looked like old-fashioned Northern Ireland making a comeback – with a largely Unionist-backed and Protestant police force storming Irish republicans’ offices and showing scant regard for anyone’s rights. And indeed, Sinn Fein was quick to describe it as ‘an attack on all Irish nationalists’, with Gerry Adams saying that ‘we refuse to be second-class citizens’.

But even this raid was swiftly followed by a bumbling apology from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s new man-in-charge Hugh Orde, who said he was sorry for the ‘public nature’ of the raid and any heavy-handedness. The fact that the raid was widely condemned shows that Unionist forces may still be technically capable of pulling off such acts – but they don’t politically get away with them anymore.

Yet many still many interpret events in Northern Ireland through the prism of the past – comparing every crisis to the start of the Troubles in 1969 or to the events of 1921 that led to the founding of the Northern Ireland state. Reading recent events in this way means that many miss what is new about the peace process.

It is the changes wrought by the peace process that make Northern Ireland’s new institutions so unstable. With its aim of containing the conflict rather than resolving it, the peace process draws the political parties into a dialogue without resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences. The conflict is no longer a political one over sovereignty and the right to rule, but has been reduced to little more than a squabble over cultural heritage, cultural difference and cultural respect.

Where Unionists and nationalists once clashed over the question of whether Northern Ireland was Irish or British, now they are more likely to get worked up about the right to have their street signs in their own language or about getting ‘recognition’ for their past suffering or about the shade of green of the police force’s uniforms.

The political clash between Irish nationalism and Unionism has been reduced to little more than shadow boxing, with the consequence that nothing of political substance is ever thrashed out or resolved. The end result is not the ‘new, remade Ireland’ envisioned by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern when they launched the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but a petty Ireland where even ordinary politics becomes difficult to pursue.

Gesture politics has replaced real politics in Northern Ireland. Everything from the decommissioning of IRA arms to the timing and loudness of Orange parades becomes about ‘sending a message’ to the ‘other community’. Even the calls for the IRA to stand down and disband are largely a demand for some kind of gesture from the republican movement, as most people are aware that the IRA has little intention of carrying out violent acts or going back to war.

It is these shifts that make institutions like the Assembly so susceptible to bickering, petty clashes and collapse – resulting in government by crisis, rather than government by vision. It also means that there is no alternative to the peace process. As each side ditch their old principles and commit themselves to little more than ‘forwarding the peace process’, it becomes increasingly difficult for parties or politicians to make any independent political statements or to have any distinctive policies.

The true nature of the Assembly was unwittingly captured by Trimble in his speech to the Conservative Party conference on 9 October 2002. Calling on Blair to chuck Sinn Fein out of the Assembly rather than suspend the whole thing, Trimble said: ‘If you have a problem with a bully in a school, you don’t close the whole school down. You exclude the bully from the class. Nobody else should be punished.’ (9)

That just about sums it up – where the once-great movements of Unionism and nationalism have been reduced to the status of stubborn schoolchildren playing up to get as much attention as they can, with Blair as the headmaster who dishes out the punishment. No wonder Sesame Street is planning a Belfast-based version of its patronising kids’ show, to ‘promote understanding and tolerance between Northern Ireland’s rival communities’ (10).

So will the peace process itself collapse? No. Its institutions may be unstable, but in the absence of anything else the peace process continues. In the wake of every crisis, politicians of all persuasions now repeat the mantra about needing to ‘save the peace process’ and ‘protect the Good Friday Agreement’ – showing that they have nothing else to argue or fight for.

The Assembly might be suspended, an election might be called, more Unionists might resign – 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.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) The fragility of Northern Ireland’s peace, Kevin Connolly, BBC News, 7 October 2002

(2) The gap may be narrow but it threatens to destroy the peace, Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 8 October 2002

(3) Bush/Blair transcript seized by IRA spies, Thomas Harding, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2002

(4) Unionists queue up to declare the end of the affair, Rosie Cowan, Guardian, 8 October 2002

(5) The securocrats’ revenge, Roy Greenslade, Guardian, 9 October 2002

(6) The fragility of Northern Ireland’s peace, Kevin Connolly, BBC News, 7 October 2002

(7) Assembly suspension ‘likely option’, BBC News, 9 October 2002

(8) Blair told to get rid of ‘the bully’, Noel McAdam, Belfast Telegraph, 9 October 2002

(9) Blair told to get rid of ‘the bully’, Noel McAdam, Belfast Telegraph, 9 October 2002

(10) Big Bird heads for Belfast, Jason Deans, Guardian, 9 October 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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