Ireland’s Uncertain Peace

John Lloyd. Foreign Affairs. Volume 77, Issue 5, September/October 1998.

Beating Unionist Drums

Northern Ireland stutters and grumbles its way toward a peace which is still uncertain. April’s Good Friday Agreement, whose signing in Belfast was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, did no more than sketch out a middle ground on which unionists and nationalists who reject violence might together govern this province of 1.6 million people. But that ground is still narrow. Although it has withstood one severe challenge this summer, it did so by a very Irish kind of luck. Another threat at least as bad is sure to come.

The referendum on the agreement gained the support of 71 percent of the province’s voters. Most of the no votes were in the unionist camp, which makes up between 55 and 60 percent of the province. The unionists have many cavils with the agreement and the structure of the assembly it sets up. But most of all they are concerned and often enraged by the vast concessions being made to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The IRA has waged continuous war on the United Kingdom and on unionists for 30 years; many unionists cannot believe that it has given up and see in its acquiescence to the agreement a sly opening gambit in a war by other means. The two toughest elements for the unionists to swallow are the release of terrorists, the majority of whom are republicans, and the entry into the provincial government of the two leading members of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. These issues will have to be faced later this year, but already in July, only weeks after the appointment of a new first minister and his deputy, a quite different issue all but swamped the agreement. It is an issue that goes to the heart of the relationship between Protestants and Catholics, who roughly equate with unionists and nationalists. It is the matter of culture and its relationship to power.

At the core of militant unionism is the Orange Order, which, with its brother organizations, the Apprentice Boys and the Royal Black Preceptory, has organized unionist men from all classes into lodges that express their loyalty to the British crown each summer in a series of parades. The order is a religious one, limited in its membership to Protestants and explicitly hostile to Catholicism (though, its supporters would say, not to Catholics). Its parades vary from processions to church for worship and marches to memorials to commemorate the dead of the two world wars (especially those at the Somme in 1916, where a disproportionate number of Ulstermen were slaughtered) to grand days out with bands in comic-opera uniforms, crowds lining the streets, speeches, and galas. Though some of it is gay and much of it stirring, the marches have a sectarian edge that has often sharpened in the last few years as Protestants and Catholics drew further back from each other. The great Lambeg drums are banged fiercely near Catholic areas, and the bands continually play songs like “The Sash My Father Wore,” which emphasize the victory of Protestant forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Over the past three years, Sinn Fein has organized “residents’ associations” in those parts of the Orangemen’s traditional routes that pass through or near Catholic areas. Informal local groups had already existed, and through local negotiation or common sense, many Orange marches that did cause offense had been rerouted. Others were dropped. In the largely nationalist town of Londonderry (“Derry” to nationalists), the procession around the city walls was curtailed and postponed, while other marches were rerouted or toned down.

One parade above all has come to dominate the increasingly tense intercommunal relations-the parade led by the lodges of the mid. Ulster town of Portadown to the parish church of Drumcree just outside the town. One of the oldest parades, dating back some 200 years, it takes place near the site of the Orange Order’s founding. However its traditional route has been the Garvaghy Road, which passes a housing project built in the 1970s for people terrorized out of their homes in Belfast, the majority of whom were Catholics. In keeping with the times, the Protestants have left, leaving the project wholly Catholic. Three years ago, the residents’ association appointed Breandan MacCionnaigh its chairman. MacCionnaigh had been imprisoned for, among other crimes, playing a part in the bombing of the British Legion veterans hall in Portadown. A skilled and obdurate organizer, MacCionnaigh brought out large numbers of protesters on the streets to try to prevent the parades over the past three years. Each time, however, they were forced through under the protection of the Royal Ulster Constabulary

Luck of the Irish

This year the Parades Commission, a new independent body appointed by the government, ordered the parade to reroute itself away from the Garvaghy Road. The Orange Order was predictably outraged, but the decision rankled even the most liberal unionists. The Orangemen do not command universal affection in unionist circles, but a church parade commemorating the fallen in the wars, down a road that does not pass through but only near a Catholic area, in a manner that would be somber rather than triumphalist, was not seen as offensive.

Protests began and built. A hard core of protesters camped in the fields round the church, in a valley between two hills. On one hill is the church, and on the other the Catholic housing project. Each night, more and more supporters came in by coach and bus. In the early hours, the rougher spirits would try to storm the police lines in front of the project behind barbed wire and a deep trench. One night, bullets were fired from the protesters’ side, hitting no one. The police fired plastic bullets, and there were injuries on both sides.

Northern Ireland already had the beginnings of its own government. In June, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which had the largest bloc of seats in the new assembly, became first minister. Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), became deputy first minister. These two men had cooperated in the past and had some respect for each other; they tried, in impressive harmony, to calm the situation. But Mallon was jostled into his car when he went to speak to the Garvaghy Road residents, and Trimble, himself an Orangeman who had walked to Drumcree through jeering protesters in 1995, was seen as compromised. He refused to tell the Orangemen clearly to call off their escalating protest. In the week leading up to July 12, the year’s biggest marching day, commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, it was feared that there would be tens of thousands of protesters at Drumcree and that the police would be overwhelmed. Trimble was privately in despair. He believed he could not withstand an explosion at Drumcree, and that if he went, the assembly would too.

At 4:30 in the morning of Sunday, July 12, someone threw a gasoline bomb through the window of a house in a public housing project in the town of Ballymoney in the north of the province. The family within was mixed Protestant-Catholic-the father, who had left some months before, was a Protestant, the mother a Catholic, and the four children at a Protestant school. The bomb sent the house up in flames in minutes, and three of the four children (one was away from home) were burned to death.

This horror was Irish luck. Within hours, the heads of the police, the churches, and Trimble himself had `denounced it as a sectarian killing (although it was not clear that it was), with the clear implication that, since it was in a fiercely unionist housing project, some Protestant extremist enraged by a mixed marriage had perpetrated the crime. All who spoke that morning implicitly connected the looming confrontation at Drumcree with the boys’ deaths; all demanded that the Orange Order dissociate itself from the men of violence and end their protest. In two days, despite angry howls from the more fundamentalist unionists that they were being framed, the protests declined to a couple of hundred men; by the end of the following week, the police felt able to move in and close down the Drumcree camp.

Thus did three deaths avert what had been forecast to be a worse horror. The issue itself remained unresolved: would it be possible in the future to develop symbolic displays of unionism and nationalism that did not provoke the other side to violence? Could Orangeism, which is one of the few remaining popular, cross-class institutions left that is not organized by the state or an entertainment corporation, evolve into a peaceful, open, and colorful anachronism? The question will recur; for now, Trimble and Mallon can sigh with relief that they survived and attempt to put some firmer ground beneath their feet before they must climb the next mountain.

The cunningly wrought agreement under which they work gives and takes in roughly equal measure. Northern Ireland is confirmed as part of the United Kingdom, but the assembly must develop the cross-border institutions that unionists fear because nationalists see them as embryos of an all-Irish government.

Their basic fear may be well-founded: that the nationalists in Northern Ireland will use the new assembly to advance a nationalist and sectarian-Catholic agenda, rather than using it to govern a divided province within the United Kingdom.

In other recent settlements and negotiations, some form of renunciation has been part of the process. The South African whites renounced their right to rule. The Palestine Liberation Organization, at least in negotiations, recognized Israel’s right to exist. Mikhail Gorbachev let communism die. The IRA, on the other hand, has agreed to take part in the parliament of a province whose right to exist as part of the United Kingdom it does not recognize. The IRA has neither formally nor informally renounced its absolute opposition to British rule in any part of Ireland. Even the SDLP, which has always argued for peaceful politics, continues to press for a united Ireland-especially in the statements and speeches of its leader, John Hume. It is, then, no mystery why unionists do not all gladly embrace peace. They see the enemy against which they have fought for three decades brought inside the pale of democratic politics and rewarded with seats, ministerial posts, and salaries-without changing position, apologizing for past murders, or giving up any of its large stock of weapons.

The largest uncertainty in the unionist mind is Irish nationalism itself. For all of this century, Irish nationalism has been variegated and has spoken with different accents, but in the end saw itself as a family that, when challenged, would always put unity before agreement with opponents. In this version, no nationalist, no matter how reasonable, peacefully inclined, or constitutionally minded, would betray the cause of a united Ireland, even if he might tut-tut at the methods used by the IRA. The British were never a friendly neighboring state or fellow member of the European Union. Where not the enemy (as they were to the IRA), they were at least an obstacle to the historic mission to unify.

The agreement abnegated the second and third articles of the Republic of Ireland constitution, which laid explicit claim to Northern Ireland. But the aspiration to unity remains in the new clauses, which over go percent of the voters in the Republic backed in May. “It is the firm will of the Irish nation,” the new Clause Three begins, “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland.”

Convincing the Faithful

Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein sold the agreement to their followers on the understanding that it would lead to a united Ireland sooner or later. Gerry Adams won assent from his doubting organization by persuading it that peaceful means could advance the republican agenda better than war. Even so, the IRA has not handed in any weapons and has consistently refused to countenance doing so. Weapons surrender has been the great failure of the talks. They were supposed to be surrendered before the talks began, while they were taking place, and before Sinn Fe in takes the seats it won in the June assembly elections and before Adams gets the ministerial position to which Sinn Fein’s vote entitles him. The lack of any progress on this front fuels unionist fears.

The only issue that aggravates the unionists even more than weapons is the release of terrorist prisoners. Although both republican and loyalist terrorists are to be released, the former greatly outnumber the latter, and their release causes much more outrage in unionist areas than loyalist releases do in nationalist ones. Many of the men to be released killed policemen; others gunned down part-time members of the army reserve. Some were enforcers within the nationalist community, where punishment for crimes such as drug dealing is a bullet through one or both kneecaps, or for suspected betrayal, death. Their release causes revulsion, especially among members of the police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and former members of the army reserve. Jeffrey Donaldson, the influential unionist MP closest to Trimble and himself a former reserve officer, has broken with the Ulster Unionist leader over the issue of prisoner release and is now hostile to the agreement.

The structure of the new assembly tends to institutionalize division. In order to put as much distance as possible between the assembly and the old provincial parliament, dissolved in 1972, which operated a majoritarian system modeled on Westminster, the new assembly is replete with checks and balances. Two community-religious blocs are assumed. The largest of these provides the first minister, the smaller his or her deputy. Thereafter, ministers are appointed according to the votes of the various parties. All issues must gain assent from the majority in each community bloc, or at least 4o percent from each bloc, giving an assembly majority of no less than 6o percent. The assembly could thus tend to reproduce the province’s old zero-sum politics, especially if Sinn Fein continues to strive to overtake the SDLP as the largest nationalist party by stressing the discrimination and exclusion many Catholics still say they feel.

The rarely voiced but always present factor in Northern Ireland’s politics is the ticking clock of demographics. Catholics were little more than 30 percent of the population in the 1920s, at the time of partition; they now account for well over 40 percent and are still growing relative to the Protestants. While a significant minority of Catholics probably vote for a unionist party, the overwhelming majority votes nationalist and can be expected to continue to do so. When the number of Catholics approaches a majority, Protestants who cannot bear the thought of becoming part of a united Ireland may turn to violence.

The splits in unionism bring their own dynamic of political instability. The Democratic Unionist Party of the Reverend Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionists are likely to make common cause with the anti-agreement Ulster Unionists, several of whom have been elected to the assembly; other assembly members on the unionist side might be tempted into their camp on specific issues or if their constituencies pressure them. By history, temperament, and constitution, the Ulster Unionist Party gives much power to the constituencies and little to the center-a political reflection of the organization of the Presbyterian Church, with its habitual distrust of the kind of central, authoritarian power it sees as typical of the Roman Catholic Church. This means that unionist representatives tend to decide and vote on principled, sometimes religious grounds, rather than, as in Westminster, following the party line. Loyalty to God, conscience, or both is more highly esteemed than loyalty to a party leader. Further, the messianism of republicanism is countered by a view that Ulster’s status as part of the United Kingdom is quasireligious and includes for many unionists a passionately felt loyalty to a monarchy which remains Protestant (no Catholic can succeed to the throne of Great Britain).

These issues are large, and the July events show how delicate the mood is, especially in the unionist camp. Yet the situation is more hopeful than in the past. The strains described may sink it and produce a situation as dangerous as any of the last 30 years. But the changes are vast. Bombs used to go off nightly; the cities of Belfast, Londonderry, and most towns and villages were saturated by police and army troops, with endless roadblocks, body searches, and random questioning by patrols. The British and Irish governments were coldly formal with each other; the old provincial parliament was abolished and direct rule put in its place; much of the Catholic working class was slipping toward the IRA, and Protestant paramilitary groups were massing across the province.

Today, though Belfast is not a showcase among British cities, it has recovered something of its tranquillity and lost some of its grimy, slummy industrial look-rather like Glasgow, which it resembles and whose industrial development was similar to its own. So much public money has been pumped into the province that its infrastructure is better than most other parts of the United Kingdom. The two great engineering plants in Belfast-the shipbuilders Harland and Wolff and the Shorts aircraft manufacturers have been kept in existence through adroit placing of state contracts. An erstwhile culinary desert and possessor of thousands of smoky, men-only bars divided on sectarian lines now has a rash of bistros, trendy restaurants, and comfortable hotels. A moderate nationalist has become mayor of Belfast, reflecting both unionist division and a growing Catholic inner-city population, and has won cautious assent from the moderate unionists. The second main city, Londonderry, has been nationalist-controlled for years. Apart from some flashpoints around marching season, trouble has been relatively low.

Time for Creativity

In all this visible improvement, “relatively” is the key word. In all but the most solidly Protestant enclaves, which have been largely untouched by the troubles, both communities are distrustful, sometimes vengeful, with collective memories of grievance that will last for decades. But the relative calm means that the main political figures have-or should have-some space in which to create, rather than merely preserve. The key figure is Trimble. He must not only, like his counterparts in the new assemblies in Scotland and Wales, make a new democratic forum work but must also create a political environment in which his own people, the unionists, can feel confident enough to share power with the nationalists.

At first glance, Trimble seems an unlikely man for the job. He succeeded James Molyneaux as unionist leader three years ago because of support garnered from the harder elements in the party. In his twenties, he was a leading member of the Loyalist Vanguard organization, which while not itself paramilitary had links with the early loyalist paramilitary, was fiercely antinationalist, and had many members who were anti-Catholic bigots. He had, as the newly elected leader of his party, paraded to Drumcree arm-in-arm with Paisley and had warned the British government, then a Conservative one, against making any concessions to an IRA that he described in the most contemptuous of terms. He is personally shy, with some of the manners of the academic constitutional lawyer he was for most of his adult life. This comes out often as irascibility, coupled with a pronounced pessimism and a disinclination to consult and reach out.

But the past year has seen the emergence of a different man. Having accepted the new British Labour government’s faster tempo for a peace process mired in procedural quarrels, Trimble, to keep talks going, absorbed many compromises and softened his previous positions. He finally agreed to a pact that preserved many ambiguities about the status of Northern Ireland and the durability of the link with the United Kingdom, justifying his assent by recalling the pledge by both the British and Irish governments that the province would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority wished. This conditional belonging is uncomfortable for many unionists, who see themselves as British by destiny. But it is reality, and to have it made explicit and above all to have the Irish government agree to it was a prize Trimble deemed worthy of compromises.

Nor has he been half-hearted about espousing a new era. Deeply distrustful of the SDLP’s alliance with Sinn Fein at the beginning of the talks, he made calculated moves to assist the SDLP’s electoral chances by their end. He uses, in speeches, phrases like “multicultural, multiethnic Britain”—commonplace to most politicians but foreign to the rather archaic political culture of Northern Ireland. When, a day or so after his confirmation as first minister, Catholic churches were firebombed by (presumably) loyalist thugs, he toured the damage with a grim face and expressed horror.

His main opponent and possible nemesis is Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. Adams has been described many times as a senior official of the IRA and a long-time member of its highest command, the Army Council-most recently and compellingly by the remarkable former IRA activist-turned-agent for the Irish police, Sean O’Callaghan, in his book The Informer. O’Callaghan also describes how Adams, with the support of Martin McGuinness, a one-time commander of the Derry Brigade of the IRA, won out in the late 1980s against the old guard IRA leaders who were narrowly focused on doing as much damage to the British and the Northern Protestants as they could. Adams developed the “ballots and Armalite” strategy, which mixed terror and murder with electoral activity, negotiations with the British, and, in the late 1980s, an agreement on a joint approach to talks with Hume’s SDLP (even though, according to O’Callaghan, Adams had a few years before canvassed the idea of assassinating Hume). His strategy has worked brilliantly. From negligible votes in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sinn Fein has moved up to take in the upper teens of the Northern Irish vote, challenging the SDLP, only a few percentage points ahead, to be the largest nationalist party. Sinn Fe in won 18 seats in the new assembly to the SDLP’s 24, securing two ministerial posts for the party and vindicating Adams’ line.

The unanswered question about Adams is what he now thinks. He has led his party into an assembly he should regard as an abomination and seems prepared to take office to administer a province he thinks should not exist. Since the agreement, his language has moderated little, something taken by most unionists as proof he remains an unreformed terrorist but interpreted by the hopeful as no more than the necessary reassurance to Sinn Fein members disoriented by the shift away from terror. He cannot afford to suddenly shock his supporters, especially when many have access to guns. Adams thus continues to provide excuses as to why the IRA should not disarm, concentrates his fire on unionist splits, and quietly encourages residents’ groups to annoy the Orange Order by demanding their marches be banned as provocations. He wants the assembly to midwife a series of committees to bring together politicians from the Republic and those from the North, and wants these to evolve into executive bodies, forerunners of a joint government. The idea is anathema to unionists. If Sinn Fein is to transform itself into a constitutional opposition party, it will do so slowly, but there is neither a guarantee nor any indication that it will happen at all. If it does not, the success of the agreement will always be in doubt.

John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, has already achieved his largest success. His strategy of involving Adams in the talks and in persuading the British to talk to him openly (there have been several secret meetings with IRA leaders over the past three decades) has been crowned with triumph. Perhaps for that reason, and perhaps because his health is uncertain, Hume refused the post of deputy first minister, which could have been his, in favor of his own deputy, Seamus Mallon-a man whose emollience and greater understanding of the unionist position makes him more acceptable to the majority community in any case. Hume has not, however, succeeded (as Adams and McGuinness have) in establishing his party on a solid base. His working style has been solitary, charismatic, and often inconsistent. Though he has been steady and courageous in opposing violence, he has never seemed to grasp the depths of unionist alienation from the Republic and from nationalism. He often gives the impression of believing that a little less bigotry and the withdrawal of the British would solve everything, without admitting that the unionists believe they are the British and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

A Fortunate Constellation

These men could not have arrived at the Good Friday Pact without a fortunate constellation of forces outside Northern Ireland, a constellation which remains in place and whose solidity is one of the most optimistic elements in the equation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with a large parliamentary majority and the energy that has characterized his first year, seized the Irish dilemma with more force than most had expected. Together with his Northern Ireland Secretary, Marjorie (“Mo”) Mowlam, Blair set a May deadline for the talks, made concessions to Sinn Fein while keeping the Ulster Unionists-just-in the conference chamber, and finally saw the process through its last two days.

Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of the Irish Republic, had, like Blair, taken no great interest in the North before his assumption of the premiership. As a Fianna Fail leader, he was ideologically closer to Sinn Fein and had shown none of the sympathy for the British position of his Fine Gael predecessor, John Bruton. But, as it took a Republican president to forge American links to Communist China, so it took a Fianna Fail premier to ask his fellow citizens to replace Articles Two and Three of a constitution crafted by the Fianna Fail prime minister and anti-British guerrilla Eamon de Valera in the 1930s.

America was the final crucial outsider. Former Senator George J. Mitchell’s role as chairman of the talks was commonly said to be critical and exemplary. Throughout a nerve-grinding process stretched over three years, Mitchell gave no hostages to the media, was never captured by any side, and even won the trust of the unionists, who had seen him as just another pro-nationalist American politician. Trimble once told me that he thought Mitchell had helped the White House understand the real nature of Northern Irish politics. Perhaps so; at any rate, President Clinton, himself suspected of being heavily under the influence of the Irish-American lobby led by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was accepted as a relatively honest broker, one whose egregious invitation to Gerry Adams to the White House while the latter was still justifying terrorism was to a degree compensated for by meetings with Trimble and other unionists. Both Trimble and Adams spoke to Clinton in the last days of the talks.

The success of the agreement may lie in its very looseness and ambiguity. Neither side has what it wants. Both can choose to continue sectarian battles and relegate the Good Friday Agreement to the same status as Bosnia’s 1995 Dayton Accords-achieving a shaky peace but unable to secure a lasting one. But each side can agree to differ while also agreeing to govern. It would be wrong, however, to say that both must make the same accommodation. The agreement has given the union with Great Britain a new lease on life by rooting it explicitly in what it always required for its stability-the will of the majority to continue it, which remains, and the acquiescence of the minority to live in it peacefully, which must be developed. This means that the nationalists, while they are the minority, must accept the union and the condition of Britishness and put the achievement of Irish unity, the quest that has convulsed British and Irish politics throughout the twentieth century, to one side as the nations enter the 21st. It is a tall order, but the agreement gives hope it might be done, at last.