Taking the peace

Why have Northern Ireland's peace talks foundered on a spat over snapshots?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Last year, peace talks in Northern Ireland foundered on one word – ‘should’. This year they seem to have foundered on a photograph.

In 2003, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the Provisional IRA’s intentions were entirely peaceful and that there ‘should be no activities inconsistent with this’ (1). But British and Unionist officials said the world ‘should’ ought to have been ‘will’, which would have transformed Adams’ promise that IRA actions should not happen into will not happen, thus allowing people to sleep easier in their beds. There followed a ‘clarification crisis’, where, according to one report, ‘the elusive prize of permanent peace and stability [hung] on a single word’. The world wasn’t changed, the talks were scrapped, and elections to the NI Assembly due to take place a month later were postponed.

Now the talks seem to have fallen apart over photos. Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party famous (or infamous) for saying ‘No’, demanded photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning. The IRA refused, saying it would not ‘submit to a process of humiliation’ by allowing the destruction of its arms, which has been taking place under Canadian General John de Chastelain, to be gawked at by curious onlookers (2). Paisley took this as a sign that the IRA ‘never had any intention of decommissioning’, the talks on power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP fell apart, and Tony Blair declared that while ‘remarkable progress’ towards restoring devolution in Northern Ireland had been made, there was still some way to go (3).

What’s going on? How can the ‘prize of peace’, as some have called it, be scuppered first by a word, then by a spat over snapshots? Guardian columnist David Aaronovitch got all Biblical in his attempt to explain this strange behaviour, comparing Paisley’s demands for photographic evidence to King Saul’s demands that David bring him ‘a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies’. ‘The old man of Ulster wants everyone to see that castration of the younger men has been accomplished’, claimed Aaronovitch (4). Malachi O’Doherty, editor of Northern Ireland’s political monthly Fortnight, rubbished these ‘castration theories’, claiming that there is realpolitik behind the DUP and Sinn Fein’s falling out. ‘There’s a fantasy that Northern Ireland’s parties are driven by childish mood swings: they aren’t’, he wrote (5).

Yet the never-ending crises over wordplay and pictures suggest that politics in Northern is governed more by tempers and tantrums these days than by anything approaching political principle. These spats are a logical conclusion of the peace process itself, a process that is less about resolving Northern Ireland’s heated political questions than containing them, less about finding a political solution than ‘accommodating difference’. In the depoliticised New Northern Ireland, symbolic gesture is all, where what you say and what you show’n’tell is far more important than what you believe, and where watching your language has taken the place of political debate.

Paisley says he needs to see photos of decommissioning in order to believe the IRA is serious about winding down its armed conflict. On last night’s Question Time on BBC1, Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former perma-tanned TV presenter turned independent Euro-MP, said the photos are essential because no one should have to sit in government with a party that ‘maintains a private army’. Yet any serious observer of Northern Irish affairs knows that the IRA’s war is over. After 25 years of fighting against the British presence in Ireland, the Provisionals declared ‘a complete cessation of military operations’ in August 1994. They broke the ceasefire in 1996, with one massive bomb attack on Canary Wharf in London and some mostly small-scale attacks in Northern Ireland, but that campaign fizzled into a second ceasefire in July 1997.

Some point to the fact that the IRA still carries out punishment beatings, mostly of petty criminals, as evidence that it is still a threat (‘they must stop the beatings’, demanded Kilroy-Silk). Yet the IRA’s transformation into a local policing outfit shows that, as a guerrilla army that threatens war, it is a spent force. It is common in post-conflict situations for armed groups to turn inwards. In the absence of the broader political and military objectives that defined the conflict, they often end up policing their own. Even Leo McKinstry, a Telegraph/Spectator regular of distinctly Unionist persuasion, recently told Unionists to stop banging on about beatings. ‘Such assaults are just part of modern urban societies and far less common in Ulster than elsewhere in Europe’, he claimed (6).

Over and above the IRA’s spasmodic military forays since 1994, the republican movement no longer fundamentally objects to British interference in Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, heirs to the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic, whose aim was to expel British forces from Irish territory. Now they accept their position as just a political party representing Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in the peace process. Far from going back to war, they call on the British government to ‘face up to its responsibilities’ in finding a solution in Ireland. As McKinstry said, with barely concealed glee: ‘Unionists moan that they have had to make concession after concession…. In reality, it is the republican movement that has given up its most cherished goals.’ (7)

If everything points to the IRA being a spent military force, today more likely to fire off faxes than surface-to-air missiles, why have the talks come to a standstill over photos of IRA guns being buried? This is the peace process in action, where words and presentation take precedence over conviction and action. Having transformed Northern Ireland’s conflict from a political one over sovereignty into a cultural squabble over respect for identities, the peace process has put the symbolic centre stage. Or, as a BBC reporter has described it, in contrast to the modern mantra ‘content is king’, in Northern Ireland’s peace process ‘clarity is king’ (8).

The aim of the peace process has never been to find a definitive solution to the Irish conflict. Indeed, it is founded on the notion that there is no definitive solution to the Irish conflict. It is now accepted across the board that the problem in Northern Ireland is not that there was a national clash over whether the Six Counties are Irish (the belief that drove the IRA’s war) or British (as Unionists and British politicians claimed), but the existence of two distinct ‘identities’ – nationalism and Unionism. Both of these, we are told, are ‘deserving of respect’, but have been unable to live peacefully side-by-side because both sought a winner-takes-all, ‘single-identity’ solution to Northern Ireland’s woes.

When Northern Ireland’s political differences are viewed in this way, the role of the peace process becomes, not opting for one of those nasty old-style solutions, but managing relations between the ‘two identities’. That is why it’s a peace process – because it is a permanent thing, an ongoing process of keeping and managing the peace. It isn’t about moving towards a definable endpoint but about making sure that each side’s voice is heard and respected. Indeed, all of the institutions of the peace process – from the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 to the Framework Document of 1995 to the Assembly initiated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, with its emphasis on ‘reaching consensus’ rather than kickstarting political debate – have sought to move away from solution-talk towards ‘inclusive agendas’ in which both traditions are ‘accommodated’ (9).

It is in this kind of climate – where process takes the place of politics, where officialdom is charged with managing relations, and where offending ‘the other side’ is the worst thing you can do – that lingo and photos can assume such deal-breaking importance. The peace process has emptied Northern Ireland’s clash of its political content, turning it into a clash of identities that has to be managed forever; it has made gestures into the substance of political life. All sides have constantly to reaffirm their commitment to the peace process and their respect for the other identity, and the more publicly and clearly they do it, the better. That’s why last year we had the spectacle of British officials trying to get the IRA to reword a statement, and why this year we have demands for the IRA not only to stop using force and to decommission its weapons, but to photograph itself doing so to boot. It is, as one reporter put it, about ‘reassuring’ the other side, about making gestures, about making a big, public display of your commitment to the peace process (10).

The end result is not a clash of Biblical proportions, or realpolitik dressed up as a silly spat over photographs, but an empty, ongoing process where nothing of political substance is ever thrashed out.

Such a peace process is deeply undemocratic. With the rarefied emphasis on rising above old-fashioned political squabbles, the officials driving the process tend to view the people of Northern Ireland suspiciously, some believing that the people’s base instincts could even throw the process off course. Officials worry that if Northern Ireland’s politicians, currently being weaned off their desires for a single-identity solution, are allowed too much contact with the people, it might re-ignite their old political posturings, where they will attempt to win votes by appealing to the masses’ presumed desires for old-fashioned solutions. Best, then, to keep these talks as far from the electorate as possible, and to avoid going to a vote until everything has already been decided on. This makes a mockery of politics, and passive spectators of the people of Northern Ireland.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Adams move ‘muddies the waters’, BBC News, 28 April 2003

(2) IRA statement in full, Scotsman, 9 December 2004

(3) ‘Remarkable’ progress but NI deal not complete, Northern Ireland on the Net, 8 December 2004

(4) Castrate the younger men, Guardian, 9 December 2004

(5) Infantilising the Irish, Guardian, 10 December 2004

(6) ‘Ulster is all right’, Spectator, 4 December 2004

(7) ‘Ulster is all right’, Spectator, 4 December 2004

(8) Adams move ‘muddies the waters’, BBC News, 28 April 2003

(9) The Northern Ireland Peace Process, Eamon O’Kane, University of Wolverhampton, 2001

(10) ‘Remarkable’ progress but NI deal not complete, Northern Ireland on the Net, 8 December 2004

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Topics Politics


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