Hopefully this will shed some light on the present situation in Northern Ireland, to supplement the excellent write-ups above.
On April 10, 1998, the peace process in Northern Ireland entered a new phase with the Good Friday Accord. The year before, British politics had also entered a new phase, as the Labour Party swept the elections, ejecting John Major from office and replacing him with Tony Blair. The charismatic new leader immediately set to work on the problem of establishing peace in Northern Ireland. Although he initially met the challenges with enthusiasm and innovation, the relentless polarization of Ulster politics wore him down, and now, seven years after he took office and six years after the signing of the agreement that was to revolutionize the peace process, the two most radical parties on both sides are once again in power and unable to work together. It does not seem as if Tony Blair or the Good Friday Accord will effect any long-term change in Northern Ireland’s centuries-old conflict of Protestant vs. Catholic, Unionist vs. Republican.
History is impossible to forget in Northern Ireland. Protestants march every summer to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry—both of which took place in the late 17th century. Protestants and Catholics alike have long stories of oppression and discrimination which seem to irrevocably divide the groups. All attempts to solve the problem of Northern Ireland in the past three hundred years have either failed or, worse, resulted in the intensification of violence. From the failure of Home Rule to Partition in 1921, and throughout the Troubles, where thirty years took over 3,000 Irish lives on either side,1 the British government has been unable to bring peace to Northern Ireland. As United States Senator George Mitchell, the chair of the peace talks that produced the Good Friday Accord, said, “Centuries of conflict have generated hatreds that make it virtually impossible for the two communities to trust each other.”2
Partition—the division of the tiny island into two parts, imperfectly separated by religion and national loyalty—is the state of mind and geography in Northern Ireland today, as it has been ever since the events commemorated in the Marching Season. The Protestant majority in Ulster, sharing its religion, culture, and economy with the United Kingdom, naturally adheres to Unionism. There is also a minority of Catholics, who have much stronger ties to the Republic of Ireland, and who have a long history of oppression under British, Protestant overlords. The Protestants, in turn, feel that they are an embattled minority on the island, and that if the Republic annexed their territory, they would lose all of their rights. The lines drawn between the two groups are physically manifested in Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast, where barbed wire strung along the tops of concrete walls marks the boundary between Protestant and Catholic.
Build-Up to the Good Friday Accord
Peace talks chaired by United States Senator George Mitchell began in 1995, after the IRA agreed to a ceasefire. They were slow to begin because, as Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach, later wrote, there were problems just getting the two sides to meet together.3 In an interview with NPR, Mitchell described the surreal feeling of sitting at a table with men who had previously committed acts of terrorism against each other.4 The Democratic Unionists, led by the famously tenacious figure of Ian Paisley, refused to meet with Sinn Fein, the radical Nationalist party, until the Irish Republican Army (IRA) decommissioned their weapons. In January of 1996, Mitchell issued a report stating that, “prior decommissioning should instead take place in parallel with political negotiations.” Mitchell reached this conclusion after being told by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, was unable to control the IRA5. This meant that talks would be delayed for several months while the IRA surrendered its weapons. Neither side was pleased. However, a bomb blast on Canary Wharf in London that killed two brought the peace talks to a halt.6 The IRA admitted to breaking its ceasefire, proving that its word was not to be trusted. In the tense period that followed, both sides agreed to elections to choose delegations for talks. The poll took place in May, and the results indicated that the people of Northern Ireland wanted peace, but June was filled with astounding violence committed by the IRA. August witnessed the Unionists’ marching season, which erupted into bloodshed in Drumcree. However, the leaders on both the Nationalist and Unionist sides distanced themselves from the perpetrators of these acts and continued trying to piece together an agreement under Mitchell.
In October, another IRA bombing destroyed the army’s Northern Ireland headquarters. The result was John Major, the British Prime Minister at the time, expressing his disgust with Sinn Fein and their claims of ceasefire by declaring, “I don’t believe you, Mr. Adams. I don’t believe you.”7 He ignored the next plan to cross his desk that would restart the peace process, effectively ending talks for the rest of his term.
Enter Tony Blair
This was the situation Tony Blair entered when Labour won the general election of 1997. His initial strategy in Northern Ireland was to work toward peace through the diplomatic process. He summed it up by saying, “I do think that the more they are drawn into the political process the harder it gets for them to return to violence.”8 His ulterior motive was to make every effort to negotiate so that if (or when) violence did erupt, the blame could be laid solely on the Nationalists and the IRA, and not on the British government. Showing a remarkable ability to control the lesser politicians around him, Blair began to play the leaders on both sides off of their constituencies. He kept Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in a constant state of tension with Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionists, while pressuring Gerry Adams to control the IRA. However, by playing the moderates of the two groups off of their more radical counterparts, he encouraged the partition mentality. Paisley continued to refuse to negotiate with Sinn Fein so long as the IRA remained armed, while Adams sought another ceasefire from the fringe elements of the IRA. Blair continued to ask for devolution of power, and also for better cross-border ties between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.9 When, in July 1997, the IRA agreed to another ceasefire, the talks began to head toward an agreement.
Blair himself took command of the talks around Easter of 1998, and was instrumental to the writing of the Good Friday Accord, which moved Northern Ireland closer to self-government. It established an assembly (which would be elected in July of that year) and created a first minister. The Accord gave the assembly powers to legislate on agriculture and education, and offered nationalists a fair share of the power. To draw the Republic of Ireland closer to Northern Ireland, it created a North-South Ministerial Council which would work together on tourism, Ireland’s status in the European Union, environment, and health (its first meeting was in Ulster, December 1999). The Accord specified that, “Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll.”10
The two most controversial parts of the Accord were the new policies on the RUC and the renewed ceasefire. The RUC had long been a point of contention because they were almost entirely Protestant, and the Catholics often complained of oppression at their hands. The Accord specified that the British government would reduce the numbers of police and armed forces and remove security installations, and also that an Independent Commission would be established to determine the future of policing in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, both sides agreed to decommission and reaffirmed the ceasefire, with the stipulation that paramilitary prisoners would be released in two to three years if their organizations kept to the ceasefire. As a result, James McArdle, the 29-year old convicted of the Canary Wharf bombing, was released in July 2000.11
Fallout of the Good Friday Accord
For the Democratic Unionists, the Good Friday Accord appeared to be a representation of the British government’s waning commitment to Northern Ireland. As Mairead Nic Craith writes, “It confirmed the legitimacy of the political will of advocates of Irish nationalism and affirmed their political aspirations for a united Ireland.”12 By placing the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of the voters, the Accord made personal identity vital, something that also threatened the Unionists. The Catholic population grows at a much faster rate than that of the Protestants, and it will not be long before the majority becomes the minority. Then, when cultural identity rather than the will of the British government makes the decision, Northern Ireland will probably join the Republic. Ian Paisley summed up the sense of betrayal his party felt towards Tony Blair by calling him a “traitor” and a “liar;”13 he and his followers seemed unable to accept that the nationalists deserved a voice in Ulster government.
Although, as Sully writes, “cynics saw the Good Friday agreement as typical Blair politics-- good on show but lacking substance,”14 the Accord was overwhelmingly supported at the polls. 55% of Protestants and 96% of Catholics voted for it.15 Unfortunately, despite the political process, the violence continued. In August, an IRA splinter group calling itself the Real IRA committed the worst atrocity in the thirty years of the Troubles. They set off a car bomb in the centre of Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200.16 Immediately afterwards, the Real IRA declared a ceasefire.17 That declaration—so crucial to the Blair-engineered talks—revealed how little control the Prime Minister had over the radical elements in Northern Ireland. Ceasefires could be proclaimed or revoked on a whim, and had no bearing on real life.
Two weeks later, Blair visited Omagh with President Bill Clinton, who, throughout the negotiations, advocated and actively supported peace in Northern Ireland with enthusiasm that no American president past or since has matched. Together, they argued that, “such horrifying acts of violence strengthened rather than weakened the case for the peace process.”18 A large body of the press followed their every move and also gave publicity to the angry invective of Unionist and Nationalist leaders.
From late 1998 through 2003, Blair and leaders in Northern Ireland experienced setback after setback as the Unionists and the Nationalists maneuvered and postured. Although John Hume, leader of the moderate Nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, true peace and political stability still seemed to belong to the distant future. The IRA offered weapons inspections and surrendered arms caches, only to break ceasefires with bloody urban violence every few months. In working class areas, armed gangs retained power and, as written in the New Statesman, “low-level ethnic cleansing never ceased.”19 Up until 2003, Marching Season resulted in violent clashes between the police and the marchers, as the Protestants repeatedly tried to enter Catholic neighborhoods, particularly the march to Drumcree in County Armagh.20 Meanwhile, internal feuds within the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Unionists resulted in assassinations in the former and in David Trimble losing his support in the latter. Talks moved in spurts of productivity and stalemate.
The Future Looks Suspiciously Like the Past...
The general election of 2003, taking place on November 28, revealed that the power sharing government that the Good Friday Accord attempted to create was still a distant hope. Protestant Unionists supported Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionists overwhelmingly after five years of disillusionment with the Good Friday Accord. Their main point of contention was the IRA’s deceptions about decommissioning. They were also upset over the reform of the RUC; previously, it was 94% Protestant, but ever since the Accord only Catholics had been recruited.21 In reaction, the Catholic Nationalists voted for Sinn Fein. As explained in an interview on NPR, “It’s because the see-saw principle tends to operate—people see the other side edging towards the extreme and feel they need to edge towards the extreme to balance it off as it were… People vote out of fear of what the other side is up to.”22 Once again, talks ground to a halt, and as of the writing of this paper the government of Northern Ireland remained broken. Controlled by the two extremes, divided by history and the partition politics of the Good Friday Accord, peace remains elusive.
The essential problem with the Good Friday Accord, and the reason why it has not solved problems in Northern Ireland, is the fact that it was engineered by Tony Blair and the British government. By presiding over the peace talks, he allowed the two sides to negotiate through him, rather than with each other, turning the “compromise” into a fight over who could win the most concessions. It also allowed the leaders to use Blair as a scapegoat when they did not achieve the ends that their extreme constituents demanded. Meanwhile, Blair added his own political ends into the already tangled mix of compromises. His desire to make the British government appear blameless in the situation should violence erupt again meant that most of the bad publicity went to the Nationalist side. Although the IRA’s continuing squabbles over decommissioning are pathetic and negative for the peace process, Blair’s well-known and internationally trusted face denouncing them proves that he is too biased to be an effective arbiter in a situation that requires equality of all parties involved.
In the near future, it does not seem likely that Northern Ireland will fall back into open civil strife. An article in the New Statesmen from late October of 2003 states, “An IRA return to full-blooded terrorism in the near future is unlikely: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness enjoy the international celebrity circuit too much to make outlaws of themselves again…”23 The opposite side of this is that complete peace in Northern Ireland also unlikely because, without tension and grandstanding, Ulster’s politicians will fall into obscurity. Blair’s advocacy and creation of the government created by the Good Friday Accord ensures that there will always be plenty of fodder for men like Adams and Paisley to exploit. Today, Paisley continues to perform his ritual of denouncing talks with the “IRA terrorists;”24 meanwhile, the IRA continues to give him a reason to do so by making and breaking ceasefires and decommissioning deals every few weeks.25 As of March 13 of this year, Blair is interfering in the problem by appointing an intelligence committee to review IRA claims in an attempt to break the impasse in the peace talks. Publicity and outside intrusion are thus far the only result.
Northern Ireland cannot exist as two separate entities compromising on every issue. Proportional representation, and the power-sharing government that comes of it, is an institutionalization of the divisions within Northern Ireland. As the recent polls proved, radical groups thrive in this environment by playing on fears of the “other” gaining more power than they were allotted. Elections become contests of extremist one-upmanship rather than ways to make national decisions. Blair needs to step back from the situation and force the two sides to work directly with one another, rebuilding their government from scratch without any British intervention. Possibly he could guarantee basic civil and human rights, as suggested in the New Statesman,26 but this is not necessary. In the absence of publicity, away from the interfering hand of the Prime Minister, maybe Northern Ireland’s leaders could achieve their own peace.
1Stephens, Philip. Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, (London, 2004), pg. 139.
2Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 146.
3Ahern, Bertie, Harvard International Review, Vol. 24, Issue 4, Winter 2003, pg. 26.
4Brand, Madeleine, and Senator George Mitchell. “The Election Outcome and
Aftermath,” NPR, February 5, 2004.
5McKittrick, David and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles, (Chicago, 2002), pgs. 206-207.
6“1996: Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire,” BBC News, February 10, 1996. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/10/newsid_2539000/2539265.stm
7McKittrick and McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, pg. 212.
8Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 143.
9Sully, Melanie A., The New Politics of Tony Blair, (Boulder, 2000), pg. 103.
10Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 105.
11“1996: Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/10/newsid_2539000/2539265.stm
12Nic Craith, Mairead, Culture and Identity Politics in Northern Ireland, (New York, 2003), pg. 56.
13Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 150.
14Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 106.
15Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 105.
16“Keeping the Dissidents at Bay,” pg. 1.
17McKittrick and McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, pg. 311.
18Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 151.
19Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights and leave the rest to the people of Ulster, allowing them to rebuild democracy from the bottom,” New Statesman, (London, Oct. 27, 2003) Vol. 16, Iss. 780, pg. 6.
20“Keeping the Dissidents at Bay,” pg. 1.
21“Northern Ireland Power-Sharing in Doubt After Elections,” NPR, November 29,
22Gelky, Adrian. “Talk of the Nation,” NPR, December 2, 2003.
23Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights…” pg. 6.
24Brand, Madeleine, and Senator George Mitchell. “The Election Outcome and
Aftermath,” NPR, February 5, 2004.
25Brown, John Murray. Financial Times, (London, March 13, 2004), pg. 2.
26Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights…” pg. 7.
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