January 10, 2001

Mixed peace prospects in Northern Ireland

I know that the Middle East is a bigger ongoing problem, though others (excepting, as usual, most of the establishment media) are covering it reasonably well. And it won 't be long before it becomes essential to raise the interest level in Colombia, perhaps before Dubya's team makes a hard-and-fast decision about what to do with the mess the Boy President is leaving them there.

But I have what might be called in the trade some raw intelligence on Northern Ireland. I haven't been there recently, but I've talked to some people, including at least one whom I have known for years and whose judgment I have reason to trust. A group that included members of Congress and the British Parliament finished the trip a few weeks ago and offered some preliminary if anonymous assessments.


The first impression, from a veteran observer making his first trip to Northern Ireland in 10 years, was "a marked improvement in security and socioeconomic situation." Shops are open, living standards higher. There is less barbed wire and fewer machine guns. It seems that peace-or the rough semblance that prevails in Northern Ireland-is producing something in the way of tangible dividends.

On the other hand, "listening to briefings in Belfast and comparing them with the street scene, e.g., in Falls Road, the words 'fragile' ... 'precarious' and 'vulnerable' leap to mind." The peace agreements that seem to be holding together and falling apart simultaneously are very complex. "Peace is clothed in prolixity."


Both of the governments who drafted the Good Friday Agreements face a general election in the near future so they are less stable than might be-and they are the most stable elements in the mix. David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party and Hume-Mallon's SDLP are coalition allies, but "neither has any real affinity with the other save a desire-by no means unworthy-to halt the violence, hold onto office and secure their political bases."

The so-called moderate parties are joined by Ian Paisley's Protestant Democratic Union Party and Jerry Adams's Catholic Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish republican Army. One of the observers notes that "Both Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams are charming. They say Hitler loved children." These could be the groups that end up killing the agreement that keeps some fragile semblance of peace right now.

Of the three observers I talked to, one believes that both Adams and Paisley would prefer to torpedo the agreement but give it lip service for the time being. "Behind each of them, too, is a body of near-fanatics with a hard core of practiced murderers. These gunmen are still prepared to murder for profit (and the protection of their local power base) as much as out of any protean Nationalism or Loyalism."

Another observer believes that "The Real IRA [a break-off group inclined to hardline fanaticism and violence] is the Real Problem. Gerry Adams is in a tough spot. He can't realistically dictate to fanatics, nor can he show a soft underbelly to his supporters. Some guns will be decommissioned, not all."

Ian Paisley's son is said to be "smart, politically savvy-watch out when he comes into his own. Another young one to watch is Jeffrey Donaldson, already a thorn in Trimble's side, and ready to derail the Peace Process in a flash with hardball treatment of Sinn Fein and the IRA."


Interestingly, most of the observers have kind words for what was called the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Northern Ireland police service. One observer calls Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable, "bright, decent and remarkably capable of understanding both sides of disputes."

The Northern Irish constabulary say they are resolved to make a peace agreement work with the "proviso that enough 'peace' endures to allow relatively 'soft' policing to hold the line against major disorder-it will be much harder for the police to hold the line if, as Adams demands, still more convicted murderers are released and the army and its field intelligence is more or less completely withdrawn."

The police are operating in a climate that might be called "the constant renewing-and updating-of antagonism. The paint is still wet on the artwork of violence on the walls of west Belfast." Another observer believes that "hatred and violence are diminishing among the majority that is sick of both- but still strenuously kept alive by minorities that need to keep updating them to survive." The Good Friday Agreement has not yet breached this gap and in some ways it has encouraged a degree of paranoia on both sides. Loyalists believe it is a precursor to Great Britain eventually washing its hands of Northern Ireland and the real IRA sees it as a step toward the elimination, in Ireland, of any realistic mainstream political push for All Ireland Unity.


"Peace is within their grasp," says yet another observer. "It's those pesky details that may drag its reality into yet another generation. We can only hope that generation has been well-schooled, conditioned to relative peace, and enjoying an increased measure of prosperity. When a good life has been attained, one is not so willing to throw it away."

Maybe, says another observer. But numerous obstacles stand in the way. He thinks some kind of decommissioning (the term or art preferred for disarming in this conflict for reasons I still haven't figured out) of terrorist heavy weapons is essential (nobody really expects the IRA or anybody else to turn in small arms unless they are old, rusted or useless).

However, he doesn't think even the turnover of relatively heavy weapons is likely, and he also believes it would be extremely difficult to monitor weapons resupply. He thinks that if the British and Irish governments were to get together and decide to do it, they could probably destroy most of the arms dumps in the country; they already know where most of them are. But it would be a controversial and probably bloody operation.

All observers agree that terrorist atrocities by either side could derail the fragile peace rather quickly, and probably for a fairly long time to come. An IRA attack in London might provoke either calls for British withdrawal or for sterner action in Northern Ireland. "Northern Ireland would be the loser from either response. Its politicians know this-though they may, correctly, gamble that no British government, in practice, will choose either route for the future. Yet I do not think the British people on the mainland forever will go on massively subsidizing as well as accepting casualties, to protect the civil peace of Ulster, while at the same time devolving political power to Stormont."


That comment points up another complication in addition to new elections coming up in both Britain and Ireland that could change various political equations. Great Britain is in the midst of a process of devolving power to Scotland and Wales. It might seem inconsistent for it to continue to hold power in Northern Ireland-even if a majority of the people there prefers British rule for the near future, as seems to be the case. If things get much rougher than the constant sense of uncertainty and vulnerability that seems to be the situation now, a call to withdraw could garner considerable support in England.

The old saying is that "The British never remember; the Irish never forget." There seem to be tangible enough benefits of relative peace in Northern Ireland that something like the current peace process (perhaps changed to be something rather different as conditions and perceptions change but still called the Good Friday Agreement for cosmetic continuity reasons) could prevail.

However, as one of the observers noted, "much of Northern Ireland's historical behavior has been addictive in nature; consequently there is not too much anyone can do to talk diehards out of their intractable positions. They have got to want to get better and they have got to do it themselves. Some gentle nudges are appropriate from the world community, but both problem and solution are 'guaranteed Irish.'"


I have no parting words of wisdom or recommendations. I pass along information I believe to be reliable in the belief that any cessation of war or development of peace is better based on a realistic assessment of what is really happening rather than on fond wishes. These assessments seem realistic if not necessarily comprehensive.

Members of the "world community" would do well to approach Northern Irish problems with humility and a keen sense of their own limitations. As is the case in the Middle East, solutions often seem fairly obvious to outsiders, and it can be intolerably frustrating when the locals are so intransigent as to reject the wise counsel of their betters in the floating diplomatic crap games. But local intransigence is reality in Northern Ireland and other parts of the world.

Peace may yet build from the bottom up, and it may turn out the former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and others have done constructive work. But a peace that is not grounded in real agreement and real determination by those directly involved is unlikely to prevail for more than a few moments in time.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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