Thoughts on the peace process in Ireland

From John Wight in Scotland

Having just spent a few days in the six counties (or Northern Ireland to give it its formal name as a partitioned state under British rule), I thought it might be worth sharing a few thoughts about what I saw and how it relates to the peace process that ended the war, or the Troubles, which began in 1969.

The Peace Process was well named given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism. This process went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons. Their statement doing so reads as follows:

“The leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. This will take effect from 4pm this afternoon.

All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.

The IRA leadership has also authorised our representative to engage with the IICD to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible.

We have invited two independent witnesses, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, to testify to this.

The Army Council took these decisions following an unprecedented internal discussion and consultation process with IRA units and Volunteers.

We appreciate the honest and forthright way in which the consultation process was carried out and the depth and content of the submissions. We are proud of the comradely way in which this truly historic discussion was conducted.

The outcome of our consultations show very strong support among IRA Volunteers for the Sinn Féin peace strategy.

There is also widespread concern about the failure of the two governments and the unionists to fully engage in the peace process. This has created real difficulties.

The overwhelming majority of people in Ireland fully support this process.

They and friends of Irish unity throughout the world want to see the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Notwithstanding these difficulties our decisions have been taken to advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country.

It is the responsibility of all Volunteers to show leadership, determination and courage. We are very mindful of the sacrifices of our patriot dead, those who went to jail, Volunteers, their families and the wider republican base. We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate.

We are conscious that many people suffered in the conflict. There is a compelling imperative on all sides to build a just and lasting peace.

The issue of the defence of nationalist and republican communities has been raised with us. There is a responsibility on society to ensure that there is no re-occurrence of the pogroms of 1969 and the early 1970s.

There is also a universal responsibility to tackle sectarianism in all its forms.

The IRA is fully committed to the goals of Irish unity and independence and to building the Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation.

We call for maximum unity and effort by Irish republicans everywhere.

We are confident that by working together Irish republicans can achieve our objectives.

Every Volunteer is aware of the import of the decisions we have taken and all Óglaigh are compelled to fully comply with these orders.

There is now an unprecedented opportunity to utilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process. This comprehensive series of unparalleled initiatives is our contribution to this and to the continued endeavours to bring about independence and unity for the people of Ireland.”

In July 2007, two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed a government, the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province that began in 1969.

The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont cannot be overestimated. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of anti-Catholic apartheid in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were reluctant to end the war.

The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardcore in their respective movements, working together in government was proof to many that the war and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning the war, had absolutely and finally come to an end.

But has it?

Driving through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the war, there’s little sign that the separation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. Marking the entrance to loyalist working class housing estates in every town are an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, lampposts and kerb stones painted red, white, and blue, along with crests of King Billy and various other symbols in deference to loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, meeting places for an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of loyalist and protestant domination. Driving into Portadown, you pass under a massive arch painted red, white, and blue, over which a large metal crest of protestant King Billy on a white horse looks down imperiously, leaving visitors and residents in no doubt who rules in this part of the world.

Conversely, the only visible sign of republican demarcation I came across traveling through the aforementioned towns was in the city of Armagh, in the form of CIRA (Continuity IRA) graffiti daubed on a wall on the edge of a sprawling housing estate.

As for the security apparatus, whilst there are no longer British Army patrols and armoured cars out on the streets, nor military helicopters flying overhead (especially in South Armagh, where the British Army and security forces were forced to abandon the road to the IRA at the height of the conflict), you still get a feeling that a heightened security apparatus is in place. Police stations in every town are more like armed fortresses, replete with high walls, wire fencing and watchtowers. Atop hills and mountains as you drive around the countryside are listening masts, used by the security and intelligence services for surveillance and which still appear operational.

What makes this even more significant is the fact I wasn’t out looking for these things. They dominate the landscape and towns to such an extent they’re impossible to miss or ignore.

Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the six counties which the establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over 30 years of war and conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. It is vibrant, affluent, and judging by the sheer number of construction cranes dotting the landscape, booming (not much evidence of the credit crunch here, it has to be said). An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, I was impressed by the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street.

But move out to the outskirts, to West, East, North and South Belfast, and you’d think you were in an entirely different world. Despite the peace process, these areas remain citadels of sectarianism (in the case of loyalist areas) and uncompromising resistance to British rule (in republican areas). The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating republican and loyalist communites, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community is decidedly off limits to members of the other, and the pride which each takes in their martyrs and the war is immediately evident in the elaborate wall murals which abound.

All in all, the only conclusion to be drawn after a visit to the six counties of Ireland is that hostilities might be suspended but they are definitely not at an end. The underlying cause of the conflict, foreign occupation and religious sectarianism, remains ever present in a part of the world that has been blighted and defined by both.

John Wight