ANTHONY McIntyre asks why the IRA would consider going away when it is clear that there is more to gain by sticking around. What Seamus Mallon described the other week in the Commons as a “moral quagmire” has led some commentators to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the peace process, and how it is time to ditch the ‘creative ambiguity’ that allows such radically different interpretations of what was agreed to persist.
Throughout the peace process a binding rule was that of creative ambiguity. There was an institutional acknowledgement that the IRA, although on ceasefire, would be permitted to engage in a little ‘internal housekeeping’. The governments would look the other way when a mutilation was inflicted, a dissident republican murdered, kidnapped or disappeared. The unwritten agreement was explained to IRA members by their leaders. A policy of ‘no claim no blame’ would apply to all IRA operations; if arrested, the one thing volunteers must not do is admit that they were on ‘IRA business’.
There’s a mixture of anger, frustration and disillusionment in Liam Clarke’s editorial in the Sunday Times. In response to the Taoiseach’s remarks in the Dail about how Ahern and other parties had worked to bring Sinn Fein into the process, Clarke wrote that it “was like Dr Frankensteins recounting of his generosity to the monster he could no longer control”.
Clarke argues that there is a republican veto hanging over the entire process:
Sinn Fein has also managed to get its ideas accepted. It has made such a shibboleth of inclusivity that a devolved government in Northern Ireland seems to be unthinkable without its involvement. Exclusion, even in the wake of robberies and shootings, is such a dirty word that the SDLP dare not form a coalition without Sinn Fein.
The result is that all parties will, unless the SDLP has a change of heart, be excluded from taking part in a power-sharing executive and the Northern Ireland assembly may be wound up. The point is that it is not as much of a punishment for Sinn Fein as the other parties.
Tony Blair has hinted that Sinn Fein could be sidelined in “another way forward”, as did the Secretary of State. Are they serious?
In Paul Murphy’s response to Seamus Mallon in Westminster, he said:
[Mallon] makes a point about the negotiation process, and perhaps it is time to take on a different type of negotiation. That will result largely from my discussions in the weeks ahead with political parties.
Apparently rejecting voluntary coalition on the basis that there weren’t enough volunteers (ie the SDLP), Murphy said: “Therefore, there must be other ways. The point is also to end criminality so that we have a wholesome and uncorrupted politics in Northern Ireland.”
And when Peter Robinson asked him “Why is democracy in Northern Ireland to be held back because of gunmen and gangsters? Surely the time has come to make it very clear that politics moves on, and moves on without them”, Murphy replied “It may have to be that”.
Yet despite the warnings to Sinn Fein, the problem for the British Government is that it has no credibility when it adopts a tough line with Sinn Fein. Sanctions can be sidestepped nicely until the next IMC report (which will be brought forward), and even if SF were to be excluded from negotiations for a period, we end up back where we started. Blair’s problem, as someone said recently, is that he has drawn so many lines in the sand, he’s run out of beach. The Government might demand clarity, but it is so addicted to process and spin that it cannot take the lead.
Writing in Parliamentary Brief, Professor of Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, Paul Bew raises some fundamental yet unanswered questions from the ‘Comprehensive Agreement’ that will no doubt crop up again when crisis threatens.
What was the IRAs new mode to be? The IRAs statement of December 9 talked of continuing activities. What exactly were these to be? What was the status of the IRAs training manual, the Green Book? Why in neither this document nor any other document bearing on the Comprehensive Agreement is mention not made of criminal activities like money laundering and cross border smuggling? Why did the governments not explicitly ask the IRA to respect property rights?
If ambiguity is out, acts of completion due and lines in the sand drawn and crossed, these sorts of questions should have been dealt with long before publishing the ‘Comprehensive Agreement’. They mirror unwanted questions that the Northern Bank heist forced the governments to face – what actually constitutes paramilitary and criminal activity; who are the legal authorities on the island and who defines the rule of law?
That they haven’t is an acknowledgement that the Government has failed to persuade Sinn Fein to accept the need for ‘straight talking’, which former Secretary of State John Reid demanded after Stormontgate. When he said you couldn’t blame anyone for believing republicans “are trying to ride two horses” he didn’t say he was prepared to accept the situation himself. If Blair’s ‘acts of completion’ speech is to mean anything, it means he has to ask unavoidable questions about fundmental republican beliefs and intentions.
The notion of ridding the process of the doublespeak contained within ‘creative ambiguity’ that inevitably leads to crisis is not a new one. A breakdown of communication when one party derives a radically different interpretation of any agreement from the others leads to further breakdowns in relations between parties, in confidence and in trust.
It is this deliberate openness of interpretation in what the Governments put on paper that gives everyone ‘wriggle room’ for when things go wrong. If the process is to remain inclusive, the Governments will always provide fast-tracked forgiveness, space or cover to those who provide the greatest threat to stability. The British believe this to be the IRA, and since Blair is ultimately more concerned about bombs going off in London than anything else, unionists have perceived inclusion as a policy of appeasement. It might well be a lesson the UDA have learned too.
If parties get themselves onto a hook, such as decommissioning, you can depend on the governments to dig them out of the hole. Keeping everyone on board has become a greater priority than adhering to democratic standards. As it is often electorally advantageous for parties to stall on a deal until after elections, it means the Governments expend most of their efforts on a very narrow focus on the ‘problem parties’, excluding moderates, in the intervening period.
Because those who create obstacles must be kept on board, the Government must always give a little, but can take little in return. This creates the impression that intransigence is rewarded, and indeed it often is at the polls. But the Government has no choice but to keep returning to the table with more carrots and, when parties have a larger mandate, less stick. Currently, the DUP and Sinn Fein have the ability to switch the process on and off like a light bulb.
The semantic somersaults the language used in ‘agreements’ permits, leads to such drastically different readings that you could reasonably conclude that no agreement had actually been reached. Until common standards, definitions and interpretations are nailed down and agreed, participants in future talks may as well be speaking two different languages. Sadly, clarification between governments and parties of aspects of any deal is kept secret.
The governments’ desire is to keep the process moving, because stalling creates a vacuum where anything might happen. That can suit both unionists and republicans alike, since they can simply stall on any particular issue until they gain some concessions. Issues that threaten to create permanent obstacles are farmed out to commissions so they can be dealt with down the line.
However, the peace train appears to be running out of track.
The two governments are as culpable as any of the parties about using get-out clauses or loopholes. ‘Creative ambiguity’ is what allows the Irish Government to lead us to believe the killers of Garda McCabe would remain in prison, while considering their release as part of the political deal last year. It’s what allows paramilitaries to shoot people within their own communities, because the Government doesn’t consider it a ceasefire breach.
Writing in the Enquirer in March 2003, William A. Hazleton, a former senior fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, summarised:
[T]he price of preserving the peace process was “constructive ambiguity” in what the Agreement meant and what it required. This allowed incompatible objectives to be accommodated, with nationalists and republicans seeing the Agreement as a step toward a united Ireland and unionists as securing Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Similarly, troublesome issues, like IRA decommissioning, were left deliberately vague to keep the process moving ahead.
The Agreement also left the North’s sectarian divisions in place, if not strengthened. This has fueled uncertainty and distrust, particularly among working-class Protestants and Catholics, which periodically ignites at any number of flash points. Not surprisingly, then, the Agreement’s implementation has become yet another battleground for communal aspirations cloaked in insistent demands of what was promised and to whom.
Pat Leahy detects a shift in attitudes down south too. After the Taoiseach’s admission that “everything possible” was done to bring Sinn Fein “into the centre by ignoring all kinds of things”, he now faces a dilemma. He supports a coalition government in the north that must involve a party he believes is associated with criminality, when he has specifically ruled it out in the Dail.
Of course, the Dail has a stable voluntary coalition government, and therefore has the luxury of being able to survive a crisis of trust and confidence beween parties.
Ahern opposes sanctions against Sinn Fein, and the Department of Foreign affairs has tried to smooth over any issues concerning Washington visas for St Patrick’s Day, so unionists may see his demand for a clear statement from the IRA on ending illegal activity as lacking bite.
The Irish Foreign Minister wrote:
There remains an ambiguity about whether the full range of activities described in paragraph 13 [of the Joint Declaration] has been dealt with. Unless this aspect of the issue is addressed to the satisfaction of everyone, the prospect of inclusive partnership government being restored is unlikely to be translated into reality.
That wasn’t Minister Dermot Ahern speaking last month. It was Brian Cowen in May 2003. History is repeating, and patterns are emerging.
The Cruiser reckons that American influence may play a part in a hardening the Irish line against Sinn Fein, making the invitation list of northern politicos to the White House this St Paddy’s Day potentially interesting reading – assuming it isn’t blank.
Leahy writes in the Sunday Business Post:
Politics is rarely about attractive choices – it’s often about the least unpalatable choice. Previously, the governments judged that fudging the violence and decommissioning issue was an acceptable price to pay in the short-term.
But as Sinn Fein’s support rises and punishment beatings and robberies continue – and, crucially, the IRA campaign recedes into memory – that judgment is being reviewed.
With despondency creeping into the process, Paul Bew writes of it:
That project has taken a very big hit, following on from other very big hits in 2003, and there is no getting away from that grim reality. Northern Ireland faces a political Dark Age. There is but one very slim hope of avoiding a dangerous polarisation of the two communities: a new coalition of the decent based on the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP in the North and mainstream unionist and nationalist opinion on an all-Ireland basis.
The elements of agreement are clear: the principle of consent, exclusion of Sinn Fein from government while the IRA retains its capacity to rob banks, the need for power-sharing and north south cooperation. The SDLP has already advanced interesting if imperfect ideas in this area. It is a pivotal moment but it wont come to anything unless the Irish government throws its weight behind constitutional nationalism in the North in a way that it has not been doing for at least two years.
Former UDA member (now target) Davy Adams suggests that one legacy of our violent past may be our moral desensitisation.
Adams writes that:
[T]he prolonged period of violent upheaval in Northern Ireland has resulted in legal, democratic and even moral points of reference having shifted, disappeared or been distorted to such an extent that notions of legality or right and wrong are now something – for the elites at least – which can be made up as you go along.
Normality can, in simple terms, be defined as that which happens on a regular basis, and so decades of violence and criminality have, to a frightening degree, come to be accepted as the norm.
In a pessimistic article, Adams adds:
In order to end the conflict, we gambled – rightly, I believe – on opening up the political mainstream, including executive office, to those who were formerly excluded because of their links to paramilitary organisations. Up to this point, at least, the gamble has failed.
It has foundered on a not unreasonable assumption at the time that former combatants, as they moved into the mainstream, would leave terrorism and criminality behind. Quite simply, as the raid on the Northern Bank and a host of other incidents clearly show, they haven’t.
Where once they had only paramilitary power, now, with feet firmly planted in both camps, they have substantial political clout as well. Instead of creating the inclusive democracy we had hoped for, we are now closer to having built a mafia state. In future years, Northern Ireland may be retrieved, but at the moment even the most optimistic among us are struggling to find a bright spot on the horizon.
One of the by-products of an inclusive approach means talks proceed at the pace of the slowest. Effectively, the two largest parties hold vetoes over the advance of the process, meaning the ‘inclusive’ talks are dictated by the agendas of just the two largest parties. Since they have to agree in the first instance, other parties are marginalised until a deal is practically on the table. This in turn puts pressure on the other parties to sign up, since no-one wants to be blamed for scuppering a peace deal.
Achieving agreement acceptable to all means compromise, and where issues cannot be resolved, that means creating fudge in order to get parties to sign up to a quick-fix, short-term plan to keep things going for another while. There is little consideration given to how the matter will be tackled when it comes back to haunt politicians.
As McIntyre says:
At first glance it would appear that the dishonesty which lubricated the peace process has now clogged it up. The response to the robbery has dwarfed anything previously hurled Sinn Fein’s way. Yet, the party only has to sit it out and its fortunes will turn around. The British general election will take place this year. A fresh approach will be taken with the peace process. The Irish leader, Bertie Ahern, will lick his wounds caused by what he feels is a lying Sinn Fein leadership. Tony Blair will behave as Tony Blur. Things will be cobbled together again.
Sinn Fein knows this: knows it does not have to reach a deal; knows the governments cannot conceive of doing business without it. The party’s strategic goal is to expand throughout the country as a whole, not to conclude a deal in one part of it which would deny the party president the enormous political capital he has amassed from the process and which he invests in the party’s expansionism throughout the island.
For the governing class, getting rid of the IRA is what the peace process is about. Their engagement in it will stop once the IRA goes. For Sinn Fein that moment has to be postponed for as long as possible. Without the piper of the IRA there are no tunes to be called.
Clifford Smyth asks the question unionists are now pondering:
At the heart of the peace process remains the unanswered question; is Sinn Fein on a journey towards democracy, or have these contemporary exponents of the republican tradition taken the nineteenth century Irish nationalist Charles Parnells cynical advice: to engage in constitutional politics while maintaining a criminal organisation outside the law?