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.