Out with the crystal ball…

SO where do we go from here? Read on, for a compilation of rambling late night thoughts , mainly about unionism and loyalism but with a fair bit on republicanism. Bet that’s got you hooked…

IT’S the wrong question, but since you asked – has the IRA completely disarmed? Well, no-one ever can really know, whether you’re John de Chastelain or Brian Keenan. The offensive materiel will have gone, with heavy weaponry no longer of any real practical military use now either. Of the rest, some is likely to have been nicked, some will have been taken by dissidents, and no doubt a few handguns will be kept handy for the odd occasion when community restorative justice fails to get the required result or the dissidents gets uppity.

But it looks like the bulk has been done away with, and that’s good enough for Tony – the appearance of progress. A handful outside unionism and even fewer outside Northern Ireland will care.

This was, essentially, a formal conclusion to the ‘armed’ conflict.

But for republicans, the struggle is far from over.

I doubt if total decommissioning would have happened if Sinn Fein hadn’t convinced the IRA how a united Ireland could be achieved by ‘political and peaceful means alone’, and now I have a vision of P O’Neill surreptitiously beavering away through his Oxford English Dictionary to find out just how elastic that meaning can be.

So aside from an old boys’ commemorative association, what else will the IRA morph into? A protection outfit for the SF elite? A fundraising organisation for Sinn Fein (with all the fun and games that could bring)?

Just as loyalists have been applying the republican game-plan to get what they want (“Wreck the place, then hold out your hand and scream ‘Themmuns have one, I want one too!’ until you get it, or at least Tony convinces you that you have it.”), so republicans must have been looking at how to continue the war by other means. Because that’s what politics here is. We seem to be settling down nicely for a kind of ‘civil cold war’.

Different fronts may open. We’ve watched a cultural war already at Drumcree and seen a bit of a sequel this summer in Belfast – though I suspect that the rerouting of an Orange parade was something of a pretext for the violence, as the real target of loyalist rage was the British Government.

You can be sure that unionists will jump on every Provo provocation – real or imagined – but it’s unlikely they won’t find something.

That ‘something’ may have been flagged up by Stormontgate and, no matter who was in the wrong there, I think it pointed ominously to a new battleground behind the scenes. To get political leverage without weapons requires a new approach to gaining the advantage on an opponent. Could political intelligence gathering replace the bomb and the bullet? After all, if unionists get leaks all the time, isn’t it simply replacing the old boy network with the new Broys?

Even if that proves to be wrong, unionists are still going to have to get their heads around the fact that there are a helluva lot of young, intelligent and qualified republicans out there who – through merit, ambition and ability – are going to have their hands on more and more reins of power. Over 3,000 applications have come from the Irish Republic to join the PSNI already, so no-one need kid themselves it isn’t happening already.

There are more degree qualified republican students in Northern Ireland now than ever before, but the perception of the Protestant community is that the unionist middle class leaves here to study elsewhere, never to return, and that the loyalist working class has an aversion to education, as there used to be an expectation of a good job, qualifications or not. That’s all changing, and loyalism hasn’t been coping well with the shift away from the old industries and certainties.

It is still incredibly suspicious of an emergent and confident republicanism, one that often plays by its own rules and gets away with it. The recent loyalist riots were a petulant cry for recognition. That doesn’t justify the violence; it was the natural conclusion of the policy of ‘parity of esteem’.

Government policy aims to finely balance the ‘gains’ made by the two main communities. What it always failed to recognise was that it if it doesn’t appear to do so, it creates discontent in the other community. Tip the scales too far either way and you end up with a lot of street sweepers on overtime and cops on sick leave.

The problem for loyalism is that it doesn’t feel particularly held in esteem. And that’s pretty much going to continue to be the case when the only perception most of the world has of loyalism is men in bowler hats and swords throwing half-bricks at police. What loyalism requires to reaffirm its esteem in some cases, such as parades through disputed areas, might be too much for others to give. But there are pleas from the Great Unloved that are more reasonable.

I strongly suspect that now that violent republicanism has been sorted, the Secretary of State will turn his attention to loyalism. Like later today, at the Labour Party conference.

In Brighton, Peter will predictably follow the peace process pendulum over to the other side. He remembers from the state of the streets in east Belfast that he hasn’t invited loyalist community representatives around for tea since talk of that £70 million pay-off. He just hasn’t been holding them in high enough esteem lately. Conversely, loyalism dissed him right back in the only way that works with HMG in NI – an anti-State tantrum. The fact that there is no IRA to hit out against doesn’t mean there is no longer a target for loyalists to fire at.

Because loyalism no longer feels that the police – a powerful symbol and arm of the State they ostensibly claim to be loyal to – ‘belongs’ to them, the PSNI became the target in the recent riots. If the PSNI were heavy-handed, then its because they’re pissed off having to act as a sponge for gangs of petrol-bombing 13-year-olds with a passing knowledge of human rights legislation and big brothers with rifles, when they’re copping it in the neck from their Ma for not being able to catch the ordinary decent criminal that nicked old Mrs Smith’s Royal Doulton collection to feed his smack habit.

Loyalists think that they’re getting all the stick, while republicans got the carrots. Curiously, this might open another gap – between unionism and loyalism. Unionist politicians are clearly incapable of stopping loyalist violence, and have been copping flak for their questionable leadership. But loyalism may see the DUP as having ‘failed to stop the rot’ or make gains – and if politics doesn’t work… the self-destructive, nihilistic and intense street burning of late demonstrated pretty clearly that there’s a section of loyalism that no longer really gives a fuck.

Perhaps part of the problem was that unionists tied political progress so closely to IRA decommissioning. It could be that they sowed the seeds of their own irrelevance by making disarmament so central. The entire issue always leaves room for uncertainty, and the spotlight on others, as well as the acclaim. But disarmament is also a symbolic argument – the IRA could rearm if it chose, though it has no reason to – and it is a deal largely between the IRA and British Government.

By stringing out the decommissioning issue and retaining the threat of violence, and, when the threat was probably no longer even real, just doing enough for the two governments, the IRA remained crucial to progress. By never doing enough for unionists, republicanism has kept itself in a key position. It was a successful strategy.

Now loyalism is the same position. Loyalism is the new republicanism. It has, for the wrong reasons, the opportunity to make gains, some of which might actually do some good..

So I wouldn’t see the prospect of loyalist decommissioning as likely any time soon. If loyalists think republicans made gains through holding on to guns, so will loyalists. Because they know violence has paid dividends in the peace process. The thing is, if it follows the republican strategy right through, loyalism knows it has to grow up sooner or later.

This might create opportunities for the DUP, if there are concessions to claim while able to stall for time. The expectation that many have for a restored Assembly soon is fantasy. Sinn Fein may turn its attention South for the next elections, the DUP will be happy to wait for a few IMC reports, and might fancy its chances of finishing off the UUP.

The outside pressure it appears to be under is not real, as the relatively muted ‘unhistoric’ reaction on Monday indicated. The British, Irish and US governments are slightly more sympathetic to unionist mistrust of republicanism these days. DUP pressure will only come from within, and with republicans having bought into the idea of partition until a majority decides otherwise, Paisley won’t be in any rush back to Stormont.

The pot will keep boiling for a long time. Yawn.

  • ch in dallas

    Gonzo, Very interesting, esp. the line about entering into a long cold civil war. Late night rambling for myself also. After blogging a couple of weeks here, the one thing that I’ve found that both side agree on is that Texas is bad! C’est la guerre, I suppose. We here in this part of the world have overcome a great many things that even a generation ago would have seemed fantasy. All I can offer Ireland is the knowledge that people and attitudes can change for the better. Nite…

  • Irish Yank

    Dear Gonzo,

    What I noticed during a month’s visit to NI in mostly RC areas is that a sizable percentage of the RC population thinks SF/IRA are confining them to the past. They look at the ROI and ask who is holding up progress in the North and they know who the major culprits are, although they also recognize the DUP have to leap from the 19th into the 21st century. They know the tiger does not change his stripes and have had it with SF/IRA BS. They just wish SF/IRA and all their criminality and intimidation would disappear.

    You make a mistake by lumping all of the RC tradition into republicans. It is as untrue and as unhelpful as assuming all of the Protestant tradition are DUPers.

  • aquifer

    Gonzo:

    “they sowed the seeds of their own irrelevance by making disarmament so central”

    Yes. Conceding the initiative to a coterie of ethnic revolutionaries was a bad idea from the start, but try telling Unionists anything.

    Irish Yank

    People in the Sinn Fein ghettoes are becoming resentful of their confinement, the arrogance of the jobs for the boys and their sisters culture, the quality of life in areas dominated by young thugs with or without connections. Domination by a communist gang is limiting and oppressive. If the SDLP could ration and structure their words they might get the message through. Don’t see the Progressive Democrats providing a non welfare whinge alternative here anytime soon though, and FF haven’t the inclination or bottle.

  • middle-class taig

    IrishYank/Aquifer

    Thank you for your fascinating insight into the current nationalist mindset. Interesting that people in “sinn fein ghettoes” feel they are dominated by a “communitst gang”, and “have had it with SF/IRA BS”. That being so, I’d be grateful for your thoughts on why people in those areas have in the last two years been voting in record numbers for Sinn Fein, with Gerry Adams getting 70% (seventy per cent) of the vote in his West Belfast constituency, presumably what Aquifer would call a “SF ghetto”.

    Do you guys seriously believe what you type?

  • Jeremy

    Gonzo – lovely stuff but you gotta stop writing at 3:30 am.

    “The British, Irish and US governments are slightly more sympathetic to unionist mistrust of republicanism these days.” I wonder is this true? or if true will it hold? The PSNI are only getting shot at by unionist paramilitaries these days and the DUP dont seem to care. How long will Tony appreciate that?

    IrishYank/Aquifer – See what Middle Class Taig said. Although Acquifer I have to commend your gender sensitivity – “jobs for the boys and their sisters culture”. Should I ever hear the IRA referred to as the boys again I will quickly correct with the boys and girls. You cant stop equality

  • Jeremy

    Gonzo – lovely stuff but you gotta stop writing at 3:30 am.

    “The British, Irish and US governments are slightly more sympathetic to unionist mistrust of republicanism these days.” I wonder is this true? or if true will it hold? The PSNI are only getting shot at by unionist paramilitaries these days and the DUP dont seem to care. How long will Tony appreciate that?

    IrishYank/Aquifer – See what Middle Class Taig said. Although Acquifer I have to commend your gender sensitivity – “jobs for the boys and their sisters culture”. Should I ever hear the IRA referred to as the boys again I will quickly correct with the boys and girls. You cant stop equality

  • Irish Yank

    MCT,

    The SF vote was down by several points in May 2005 from 2004. Check the figures before you bluster.

    If you knew the RC areas of the North and had friends there who would speak to you honestly you would soon discover the immense degree of intimidation, both subtle and overt.

    SF is the past. People want to move on. Let them look after the graves of the thousands they are responsible for murdering.

  • Gonzo

    Does anyone think SF might turn its attention more fully on the South now, while the DUP stall for time up here?