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
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
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."
COPS SHOW PATIENCE
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
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.
IN THE GRASP?
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
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
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.