‘There’s only one solution’, my late father would grandly announce when discussing Northern Ireland.
It’s a phrase that would cause no end of mirth in our household, as on the one hand it would indicate that, to use the Cork vernacular, ‘he had drink taken’. On the other hand you knew that the ‘one solution’ would bear almost no resemblance to the ‘one solution’ of two or three nights previously. One night he’d be driving Protestants into the sea, the next he’d be handing the whole state over to lan Paisley. British troops would one day be required to leave, and the next to run amok in the Falls and the Bogside. The IRA should be in government on a Tuesday and all hung by the following Thursday. He would espouse the virtues of a United Ireland one night, only to advocate British rule over the entire island of Ireland the next.
Once you’d heard all this often enough not to take seriously, it was very, very funny. Still, compared to the various luminaries of the peace process, I’m beginning to think the man represented a model of consistency and clarity. For, as I write, the process has once again become ground down in the mire and, on the face of it, it would appear difficult to explain why.
After more than 20 years of military conflict, bombs, bullets, army patrols, roadblocks and so on, there has been a period of peace at a level that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The IRA have, to all intents and purposes, laid down their arms without being any significant step nearer to a united Ireland.
The Unionists have the first minister and the majority in a power-sharing executive. Northern Ireland is still part of Britain, and the British government is still in overall command. Yet throughout the process, at every stage, it has been the Unionists who have seemed most unhappy with the process. On the one hand you have lan Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party ranting and raving against the process. For them, of course, sharing power with Nationalists (or Catholics as they would see it) is abhorrent. Paisley has always loathed the notion of giving Catholics any say in the running of Northern Ireland.
Paisley was the major figure in opposition to the Sunningdale agreement in the 1970s. That agreement merely allowed moderate nationalists like the SDLP to have some share of power. There was no suggestion that Republicans should be involved. Yet the agreement was smashed by a sectarian general strike led by Loyalist paramilitaries urged on by the bellicose rantings of Paisley.
What though of Unionism’s ‘moderate’ wing? Here we find David Trimble, a man who half recognises the need for accommodation with Nationalists, every fibre of whose sectarian being makes him a reluctant supporter of the peace process. At every stage this leader of the assembly has apparently been threatening to bring the whole process to a halt. Again and again he has placed demands, deadlines and pre-conditions, all apparently designed to either have Sinn Fein excluded, or the assembly disbanded.
Now they apparently have the issue they need: Sinn Fein officials spying, passing on names and information to the IRA.
Quite why this should cause such a stir I don’t know. It would be amazing if all sides involved in the struggle up to this point hadn’t kept much of the apparatus of that struggle in place. Britain still has soldiers in Northern Ireland. The local Special Branch and British intelligence services are clearly still in operation (otherwise why the raid on Stormont, and how did they know where to look?). They will almost certainly have kept infiltrators in the Republican movement, and no doubt some rogue elements are still working closely with their trigger-happy pals in the Loyalist paramilitaries. Indeed Gerry Adams himself discovered that his car was bugged during the early stages of the process.
As for the Republican movement, it has been clear to all but the most paranoid for some time that Adams and Martin McGuinness have abandoned armed struggle on a permanent basis, and have clearly taken a substantial section of IRA activists with them. They have recognised that the armed struggle was going nowhere. However, they have done so with little more to show than a couple of ministerial posts, and a vague sense that history, demography and reproduction are on their side.
They have asked their membership to first stop using their arms, and then agree to their leaders taking part in British elections, and sitting in British institutions. Furthermore they have been asked to break with all Republican traditions, and decommission arms. Finally they have then been asked to trust a body of people (the Unionists) to include them in government, to share power and authority with them. That is to trust the very body of people whose whole existence was based on the exclusion of Catholics of any hue, let alone Republicans.
It would be astonishing in such circumstances if the trappings of military struggle were not kept–the potential arms deals, the military structure, the intelligence network. Indeed were they not, were the IRA simply to be disbanded at the whim of Blair and Trimble then, as sure as night follows day, splits and splinters would occur. You would end up, as in the case of the Real IRA, with armed movements, unrepresentative and accountable to no one, with all the mayhem that has always led to.
None of this seems to concern Unionism a jot, or instruct Blair as he dances to their bidding. Which just goes to show that, as always where Northern Ireland is concerned, the roots of its troubles lie in a sectarian Unionist state, propped up by British rule.
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