The trick is to keep moving. If you stop, if you start thinking, you lose your focus. You lose your concentration. You’ll be a casualty. The idea, the perfect idea, is to keep moving.
– Dwight D Eisenhower, June 1944
The primary locus of last night’s documentary was the IRA‘s ceasefire of September 1994. Although it only lasted 18 months or so, it’s hard to gainsay Gerry’s observation that ‘it is still the most logical point at which to divide recent history into a “now” and a “then’”.
A former workmate of mine who’d joined the RUC recounted his pleasure at visiting McDonalds with his kids around that time. Another told me how he thought something else was happening. Relieved of immediate danger, people began to shock each other by speaking openly about their true political feelings.
It was a generation that had grown ‘tolerant’ of gross and mundane cruelties, whose signal lesson was that you never argue with a man and a gun (let alone tell him to shag off). Politically unbound from the constraint of law, human rights, employment and equal opportunities became subject to the vagaries of to the threat of brute force.
What the programme did bring was a sense of the experience of some of the victims of those last few months, though the trauma stretched back to those first tumultuous days of the Troubles.
Without doubt there were thousands of small acts of betrayal over the years of the troubles. But it’s also true that other much less well documented acts of solidarity also took place, which over time sustained trust at both the individual and broader societal level and kept the grounds for sustained peace intact.
And yet the ‘bookkeeping’ murders (assassination of moderate unionist voices was nothing new) and Ervine’s assurance that what was happening in the streets (the UVF was keeping its own ‘bloody book’) should not upset the backroom negotiations demonstrate the shifting pragmatism of the time.
Of course the trauma (and the political killing) continued long after 1994. On the loyalist side at least in the first ten or twelve years assassinations continued to be sectarian and opportunistic augmented latterly by feuds that were often little more than internal power struggles and ‘turf wars’.
Republican actions were aimed more at control of dissent and anti social elements often under noms de guerre like Direct Action Against Drugs (DAAD), until Sinn Fein’s agreement to support the PSNI in early 2007, although the murder of Paul Quinn the same year suggests old methods still persisted in some areas.
Shirlow and Murtagh’s 2004 research showed that fear and avoidance in communities most affected by the Troubles persisted and perhaps even grew long after violence had subsided. 73.6% of the 9000 people surveyed felt that violence against their area from the other community had increased since the ceasefires.
Frank Millar, towards the end of his 2009 book A Triumph of Politics, at least asked some of the right questions of the uneasy settlement that was the fruit of this seemingly endlessly messy Peace Process era…
Looking forward rather than back, there will be uneasy, still-to-be-answered questions too about the character of Northern Ireland’s political elite. Having seized power, will the DUP and Sinn Fein prove capable of genuinely sharing it for the common good? Can commitments to justice and equality have meaning without a shared commitment to reconciliation between communities still living a segregated ‘apartheid’ existence behind the so-called ‘peace walls’?
Will declared Republican support for the police be reflected in the cultivation of a culture of lawfulness and the breaking of paramilitary control on both sides? Crucially will devolution provide a settlement finally permitting the development – never before experienced – of a common commitment to a place called Northern Ireland?
Perhaps it is not too fanciful to describe that first IRA ceasefire of the Peace Process era as an inverse D Day, a leap into the darkness to form a beachhead in politics, however crude, self contradictory or limited in its long term planning and content.
The danger, if it can be called that, of canonising the important but ultimately limited achievements of the past, is that we become acclimatised to subsisting on the democratic beachhead rather than pressing on towards new, more inclusive and liberating objectives.