Negotiations: the cost of further inaction

Gary Kent looks at a number of related issues in the run up to negotiations at Leeds Castle. He warns that the inability of the main political parties to come to an agreement has already had major cumulative and detrimental effects, and that these only stand to increase in the face further and prolonged inaction.By Gary Kent

Northern Ireland’s peace process is moving like a glacier towards a final settlement with key talks between the major players taking place this weekend in Leeds Castle in Kent. The pessimists seem to have history on their side.

It is ten years since republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations declared their ceasefires. It is six years since the historic Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by 85% of the people of the island of Ireland in concurrent referendums, north and south of the once hotly contested border.

As a result traditional foes eventually agreed to share power but the local devolved Assembly and Cabinet were suspended two years ago amid allegations that the IRA was spying on the British and Irish Governments, gun-running from Florida and consorting with narco-terrorists in Colombia.

The suspension was then followed by elections which produced victories for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Reverend Ian Paisley, and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein, which are seen as representing the extremes in Northern Ireland.

The sticking point throughout has been the issue of the decommissioning of illegal paramilitary arms. The Good Friday Agreement envisaged that this would be completed in two years but so far only an unspecified amount of republican arms has been put beyond use.

The exact quantity or proportion of the total armoury that has been decommissioned and how remain completely unknown, except to the former Canadian Defence Chief General John De Chastelain who cannot divulge these details.

Such secrecy combined with continuing republican paramilitary activity sapped the confidence of the pro-British majority, undermined their leader and former First Minister David Trimble and drove many of his voters into the arms of Ian Paisley.

Paisley’s party demands complete disarmament, possibly witnessed by their representatives and filmed (the “Spielberg option”) as well as a period of decontamination before it shares power with Sinn Fein. In addition, the DUP has always opposed the Agreement and wants to renegotiate key elements of it.

It is against this background that all the main players plus the British and Irish Governments are meeting this week at a plush castle in Kent in England to seek a final settlement. The Governments insist that they have no Plan B, an alternative to the Agreement, and are equally insistent that the paramilitary groups must complete the process of disarmament.

All parties say that a deal is possible. None of them wants to be blamed if proves impossible. But key British and Irish opinion-formers agree that Sinn Fein (and hence the IRA) and the DUP cannot reach a deal at this stage. It’s probable, however, that some progress will be claimed and that the meeting in Kent will be portrayed as the beginning of the end.

In the bad old days, this could have led to credible talk of calamity and the possibility that the IRA would return to war. But everyone agrees that there is absolutely no possibility of it taking up arms against the British State. The idea of a terrorist campaign has been destroyed by the fall-out from 9/11. Anyone who planted bombs to kill scores of civilians, as they used to do, would be damned forever and their electoral support would evaporate.

One commentator says of this now empty threat from the IRA: “you and whose army.” And the republican movement has moved a long way. Catholics were once liable to be shot for assisting British soldiers. This summer a senior Sinn Fein figure and former IRA prisoner saved the life of a paratrooper who could have been lynched by a nationalist mob. This is a remarkable milestone for Irish republicans.

There is a common assumption that it is only a matter of time before the IRA decommissions all its weapons, endorses the new policing service in Northern Ireland and the IRA becomes an old comrades’ organisation. Sinn Fein representatives are very clear that the IRA will go but are determined to exact the maximum price for such a concession.

It is thought that they will hold out until the next general election in the Irish Republic, either in 2006 or 2007. Sinn Fein finds itself at the centre of the process while they hold the IRA’s dissolution as a bargaining card and this does not yet cause them any electoral pain in Northern Ireland.

But voters in the Irish Republic take a more critical view of the IRA and it is widely thought that Sinn Fein cannot be more than a bit player in Irish politics until it “loses” the IRA. There would be little point in making such a concession so far in advance of the Irish election when its impact could be lost.

So there is a feeling that failure this week makes little difference. However, this underestimates the impact of the failure of politics on what one senior Westminster source describes as an “expensive, sick, dysfunctional and totally irrational society.”

Northern Ireland has come a long way since the early 70s when insecurity was rampant and hundreds were killed every year. But the effect of what is usually euphemistically described as the Troubles has divided its people very profoundly and there is a “benign apartheid.”

Despite the peace process, segregation of Catholics and Protestants has worsened. Rigorous equality legislation has built some protected spaces in which Catholics and Protestants co-exist and trade unions have done much to tackle hatred in the workplace. But most people do not wish or feel that it is dangerous to live, work, go to school and socialise together. Northern Ireland is a bitterly poisonous society ill at ease with itself.

It is contradictory. There are more mixed marriages but most communities are composed of more than 90% of either Catholics or Protestants. The vast majority of parents support the principle of integrated education, as opposed to mainly Catholic or Protestant schools, but only about 7% attend such mixed schools.

This means that generations of kids have little or no contact with their peers on the other side until, for some, they reach higher education or emigrate. This strongly consolidates the “them and us” mentality and the lack of understanding of others’ fears and hopes.

There has been much talk about embracing some form of truth and reconciliation process but this is likely to become a truth and recrimination process for now. The parties have come a long way by suspending their deep disgust with each other but trust is in short supply.

There may be peace, although both sets of paramilitary groups exercise brutal power through kneecapping, expulsion and intimidation in their own communities and the “peace walls” at the interfaces between increasingly homogenised Catholic and Protestant areas are still being built.

Some say that it is a question of time before this changes. But widespread social segregation has a cost. It is estimated that the cost of duplicating public services – from leisure centres to houses and buses – is nearly $1.5 billion a year.

Northern Ireland’s economy is fitter thanks to peace but one of its key exports is people. Many workers in the North go to the booming Irish Republic in the week and their pay packets prove to be crucial to the service economy when they return for weekends. Many young people leave the North to go to university in Britain and never return, preferring the more inclusive and cosmopolitan lifestyle in, say, London to the segregation and insularity of their old ghettoes. This discourages enterprise and innovation. One analyst says, “those with get up and go get up and go.”

Thanks to the militarization of Northern Ireland during the Troubles and the unwillingness of successive British Governments to apply economic liberalization to the North, the public sector accounts for 60% of the economy, much higher than the rest of the UK and a drain on enterprise. There is also a huge black economy and widespread tax evasion.

The continuing inability to strike a deal and build institutions that can address such failings only defers the painful decisions that will be needed to desegregrate society and modernize the economy. Local politicians are not under pressure to take collective responsibility for reforms that could hurt their voters.

Northern Ireland may be a small unit but has had huge attention lavished on it by Prime Ministers and Presidents for many years. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has visited it thirty times in seven years. Some wonder if this exceeds the time given to his own local constituency in England.

Blair is under pressure from his own party to focus on domestic issues, and Northern Ireland does not count as one of these. If a deal is not reached this week, it is unlikely that the Blair will find another window of opportunity until 2006, because of the impending general election in May or June next year and heavy European Union and G8 commitments in the second half of 2005.

The Northern Ireland parties will only have themselves to blame if they flunk the chance of a deal in Kent and allow the peace process to drip slowly towards a finale whilst Northern Ireland stagnates socially, economically and politically.