Is the End Near In Northern Ireland?

As part of an ecumenical group from Northern Ireland, I visited San Francisco about 10 years ago. After we had made a presentation, a young man asked why I was so opposed to the violence being committeed by the Irish Republican Army. I repeated the arguments I had given in my talk: that violence in our context was morally wrong, that murdering policemen in Northern Ireland would do nothing to persuade the British to withdraw but would increase divisions between Catholics and Protestants and that violence destroyed the moral fabric of the Catholic community. Further, after more than 400 years living on the island (longer than whites have been in America), perhaps Unionists had a right to live in Ireland, and since both the United Kingdom and Ireland had joined the European Community in 1973, talk of independent states in Europe was somewhat anachronistic. At the end of the conversation the young man said, Well, I will continue to do my bit to support the struggle.

At the time I was furious. I wanted him to meet the relatives of those who had been murdered. I wanted him to know their suffering. I wanted him to realize that while it takes a millisecond to kill somebody, it takes years and often generations to deal with the aftermath. Had I met the young man after Sept. 11, his response might have been different.


The Sept. 11 attack was shocking. It came shortly after three members of Sinn Fein had been arrested in Colombia in an area controlled by leftist rebels. What were they doing there? Was the I.R.A. in league with the rebels? Was it training them? The incident was a deep embarrassment to Sinn Fein in the United States. The Sept. 11 attack added to a cold wind currently being experienced by Irish Republicans. An even colder wind seemed to be threatening the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

On Oct. 8 Unionists offered two motions in the Northern Ireland Assembly to expel Sinn Fein from the government on the grounds that the I.R.A. had not commenced decommissioning. Following the inevitable failure of the motion because it could not attract cross-community support, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, announced he was pulling his ministers out of the government, thereby precipitating its collapse.

Yet, as so often in the past, the Northern Ireland peace process has risen from the ashes of despair to a new optimism. On Oct. 22 Gerry Adams called on the I.R.A. to start the process of decommissioning. The following day they did so. General John De Chastelain, whose commission has been charged under the agreement with overseeing decommissioning, announced that a significant event had taken place. Unionists opposed to the agreement quickly pointed out that his words had been carefully chosen: they did not specify that a significant number of weapons had been decommissioned. But David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, recognized the move for what it wasperhaps the most significant event since the signing of the agreement on April 10, 1998. It meant that at last the I.R.A. was starting the process of going out of business, that Republicans were committing themselves to politics, that the old policy of the armalite and the ballot box was changing irrevocably to the ballot box alone.

Two Viewpoints

The agreement had been in trouble for some time. At a recent residential meeting organized by Community Dialoguethe group with whom I worka young Unionist youth worker said he wakes up every morning with a knot of anger in his belly because the Republicans have won everything, and they have done it through violence. The young man’s comment reflects the deep anger in the Unionist community. Part of this is due simply to change. In the past, things seemed much clearer. The I.R.A. was trying to kill the security forces, the security forces were trying to arrest them and everyone knew where they stood. Then the I.R.A. declared a cease-fire, the agreement was signed and Republicans ended up holding the ministries for education and health in the new government. There was a palpable gasp in the Northern Ireland Assembly when Martin McGuinness was named minister for education: a leading I.R.A. man is in charge of the education of our children!

For their part, Republicans are either genuinely puzzled or outright dismissive of this Unionist response. They see themselves, with some merit, as having made enormous sacrifices. They have given up the armed struggle, even though it was central to their philosophy. They have accepted the setting up of a new Northern Ireland Assembly, and they have taken their place as ministers in a government whose ultimate authority is derived from Westminster. All this has been immensely difficult for them. Further, although they have failed to get what they would see as satisfactory police reform, they have remained involved in the process.

The 1998 Agreement

Despite the many difficulties, the peace process is alive, if not well. The agreement set up a variety of political institutions within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and between the United Kingdom and the Dublin government. All of these were designed to reflect one core political reality: there are two groups in Northern Ireland. Each has the power to block the other from running Northern Ireland, and the consent of both is required if these institutions are to work. In other words, the only way we can go forward is together; and the only way we can do this is through politics, not through armed struggle.

In Northern Ireland the agreement set up the Northern Ireland Assembly. All major decisions required cross-community support. The assembly appoints a 10-person executive, whose seats are distributed on the basis of party strength within the assembly. This meant that Unionists held five (Ulster Unionist Party three, Democratic Unionist Party two) and Nationalists five (Social Democratic and Labor Party three, Sinn Fein two). The idea was that the normal practice of cabinet government would apply.

In fact this did not work. Ian Paisley’s D.U.P said they would not share government with Sinn Fein, and they refused to attend meetings of the executive at which Sinn Fein was present. They did, however, take part in committee meetings attended by Sinn Fein. Nonetheless the executive produced a government budgetthe first time this has ever happened in Northern Ireland. This was a great achievement. The assembly also had a series of committees that shadowed ministers, and these also worked well. All this was a sign of the vast amount of agreement that exists among the people of Northern Ireland.

Since the 1998 agreement, there have also been new government measures designed to combat discrimination and to give new human rights protection. Nationalists broadly welcomed these initiatives; Unionists for the most part opposed them.

The agreement failed to deal with policing, and the matter was referred to the Patten Commission. Both the S.D.L.P. and Sinn Fein opposed the British proposals on the grounds that they failed to implement Patten’s recommendations. However, this fall the S.D.L.P. accepted the amended British proposals and appointed representatives to the Police Board. Sinn Fein continued to reject it. Unionists saw the police reforms as a betrayal of the sacrifices made by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in fighting terrorism, but they also eventually agreed to nominate representatives to the board. For the first time, therefore, Nationalists and Unionists will together be taking responsibility for policing. The absence of Sinn Fein is a major limitation on this achievement.

Lack of Dialogue

The key problem that the agreement has faced has been the lack of dialogue. It is startling at times to hear Unionists or Nationalists describe each other’s beliefs or motives, when the reality is very different. This is not surprising. More than a year passed after the signing of the agreement before David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, agreed to speak directly to Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. While there was communication through intermediaries, this could never replace face-to-face meetings. The result of this lack of dialogue was that the two groups in Northern Ireland remain ignorant of each other’s story.

Community Dialogue organizes meetings with participants from different political backgrounds. These are not easy. Wounds are still raw, not only about present disputes but also about the past. Whether the issue is policing, decommissioning or the early release of prisoners, all the participants really focus on the past. The key question for both sides is: how can we legitimize past actions of our own group and delegitimize the past actions of the other group? Thus, if Unionists accept policing reform, there may be an implication that the R.U.C. was less than perfect in the past. If Republicans decommission their weapons, some will see this as surrender; and if they say the war is over, then some Republicans will see this as delegitimizing the whole past Republican struggle.

Dialogue does not solve these problems. But it does change the context in which they are dealt with. At a recent meeting, a Loyalist who had not spoken much was in a small group with a Republican. Toward the end of the session he said: I hope you don’t think that just because I haven’t spoken much that it has been easy for me sitting here with him [the Republican]. Then he added: Come to think of it, I suppose it has not been easy for him either. At that point the Republican turned toward him, agreed with him and the two shook hands.

That handshake does not represent agreement. Each remained true to their opposing ideologies and values. What it does represent is recognition: recognition that the other exists, that each has some understanding of where the other is coming from, that each recognizes some commonality in their experiences. It may also represent a commitment not to kill each other. The handshake took place because an intensive dialogue had preceded it for one-and-a-half days. The hope is that each took back to their respective groups a greater understanding for the other, which may make possible negotiations and mediation in the future.

The Role of the United States

The U.S. government under President Clinton made a significant contribution to the peace process. U.S. involvement helped the doves within the Republican movement argue that there was a better way than violence. It also encouraged Unionists to start making their case on the world stage, a project at which they have for the most part been singularly unsuccessful. (The most startling recent example of bad public relations was the blockading of schoolchildren in the Ardoyne, organized by Loyalists this summer and fall.)

The United States can still help Northern Ireland by pressing Republicans to continue decommissioning, by making expertise available for party political development, by funding community initiatives and by investment. (Northern Ireland remains a good prospect, with an educated, English-speaking workforce within the European Union, together with a good infrastructure.) Besides, it would be contradictory if the United States, while obviously focussed on defending itself against terrorism, did not continue to help lay a solid foundation for peace in Northern Ireland, thereby finally ending at least one centuries-long conflict.


David Trimble responded to the I.R.A.’s decision to commence decommissioning by agreeing to come back into government with Sinn Fein. Eighty percent of his party’s executive supported his decision. But because two of his assembly members, Peter Weir and Pauline Armitage, voted against him, he failed to get sufficient cross-community support to be reappointed as first minister. In the end he was rescued by the Alliance Partywhich has always refused to be either unionist or nationalistredesignating itself as unionist. This device flew in the face of a central clause of the agreementinsisted on during the 1998 negotiations by nationaliststhat all major decisions would have cross-community support, but the manoeuvre worked: the government is back in business. The appointment of David Trimble as first minister and Mark Durkan of the S.D.L.P. as deputy first minister received a standing ovation from Sinn Fein assembly members. That is a change, and it is good news.

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