The final lesson of the Northern Ireland peace process?

In the Sunday Times Liam Clarke noted that, in the strictest terms, the responses of both Sinn Féin and the DUP amounted to a rejection of the St Andrews Agreement, and he argued that it is the fear, within both party leaderships, of “[taking] some pain and [sacrificing] some support” that is preventing progress.From the Sunday Times

The extent of the likely damage is, according to a recent BBC opinion poll, about a fifth of each party’s hard-core support. Some 22.2% of DUP voters believe their party “should never share power”, while 18.2% of Sinn Fein supporters say the party “should never sign up to policing”.

Making progress means being prepared to lose the backing of these recalcitrant rumps. If their views are taken into account and their support courted, there will never be a power-sharing deal and the views of the 70% of the population (excluding don’t knows) who support the St Andrews agreement will be overridden.

No doubt many of the diehards are good friends and loyal supporters of the DUP or republican leaderships. Extremists tend to be the people who give you the strongest backing when in a tight corner and never give ground when the going gets tough. But it is one of the duties of leaders to be prepared to take casualties and absorb losses in pursuit of a strategic goal. It is also a fundamental duty of leadership to give a lead, to bring people somewhere they might not think of going.

Swallowing hard and taking tough decisions is the only way that either party can hope to govern. In order to get its hands on the levers of power, each leadership has to help the other to do so.

In practical terms this means Paisley not only attending the Programme for Government Committee, but also speaking to Sinn Fein and being filmed doing so without any further preconditions or fuss. That is the sort of courage it takes to be a successful leader.

On the other side it means Sinn Fein letting its followers in on the open secret that they cannot hope to sit in a power-sharing executive without first supporting the police and courts. It is not possible to be a member of a government and still regard yourself as a member of the revolutionary underground operating an alternative justice system and maintaining a sneaking regard for criminals. It means calling on people to give information to the police not only about the crimes that suit you but about smuggling, racketeering and the murder of Robert McCartney.

If they can’t do it, then power-sharing can be forgotten until Adams, McGuinness and Paisley have left the political stage and a new generation of politicians has taken over. History may conclude that the present political leaders had too much baggage and too little courage and that people were right to be suspicious of them.

The final lesson of the Northern Ireland peace process may be that the men who led the war cannot lead the peace. The coming months will tell.

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  • aquifer

    I want to see the serious issue of ‘on the runs’ addressed. Both these parties are clearly running scared of local accountability and the outworking of their fatuous sectarian outbidding. If someone set a bomb off, they would be racing one another to the smokescreen.

  • Pete Baker

    From what I can tell, aquifer, OTRs are well below the radar… whether that means it’s a done deal or whether it means they’ve yet to decide is an unknown.

    In any event, there are enough issues out in the open to be going along with for now.

  • Crataegus

    If their views are taken into account and their support courted, there will never be a power-sharing deal and the views of the 70% of the population (excluding don’t knows) who support the St Andrews agreement will be overridden.

    The problem with this whole process is that it has been designed to bring in the extremes at the cost of the ‘70%’ for it is perceived that at the extremes is where the problems lie.

    Also how the institutions were set up and the structures agreed was deeply flawed as common good was often sacrificed for vested interests and the result was an agreement that claimed to be inclusive, but which in effect handed the power of veto to relatively small minorities. We set up structures that institutionalised sectarianism and in the process we allowed those most belligerent to abuse and use the process for their own gain.

    We missed an opportunity to be a lot more imaginative and various administrations have made matters worse by instigating deals and side deals with those players that they consider important at any particular time and have given quite clear indications that the other parties to the agreement were irrelevant. I believe that the Governments handling of the process and that of the senior civil servants involved to be at best mediocre and perhaps inept and in the case of the government utterly duplicitous.

    A peace process has to be about more than doing grubby deals it has to be about idealism, for it is idealism that carries you through difficult patches. Here we have too many rotten deals and no idealism.

    The DUP & SF are election machines and no election machine will countenance a 20% drop in core support unless there are clear ways to redress the loss. For SF this would mean eating into SDLP support or markedly improving their position in the South. I can’t see either happening as they are reaching a ceiling in both jurisdictions and indeed may have peaked. There are many who vote SDLP who simply won’t vote SF and in the South their target seems to be sections of the working class and those with strong Republican views. They are not going to move out of the 8-12% range from that base.

    With regards the DUP a similar problem applies. The UUPs fall has had more to do with self inflicted wounds than anything the DUP have done and again many UUP voters will not vote DUP. Whilst Paisley senior walks this earth Unionism is parked in a siding. Post Paisley there could be major changes but currently it is hard to see where the DUP can gain.

    Of course there is also the potential for damage by doing nothing, but here again the would be pain is fairly anodyne. To mitigate against loss during drift SF have to portray the super councils as another road to Union, which they are not, and the DUP have to pound on about not reneging and all that. Meanwhile we are becalmed.

  • Alan

    Becalmed or beshat-upon ? I favour the latter.

    The option to do nothing is humiliating and damaging to all of us denied the Assembly.

    And you are right, there is no idealism because both sides chose the wrong path many years ago, know it, and seem to want to hide in the house till it all goes away.

  • George

    As you are a person who values the finer points Pete, shouldn’t that be “Clarke”?

  • Pete Baker

    Indeed it should, George.

  • David

    The blame should not be with the hardliners. They never pretnded to be anything else. Mr Blair deluded himself that he could persuade them. To do this he turned on the middle ground. The consensus that acheived GFA has been destroyed. Now the hardliners will not deliver there is no-one left. Take a bow Mr Blair for another success.

  • Greenflag

    Crataegus,

    ‘Meanwhile we are becalmed. ‘

    Could be worse . According to the latest national rankings HDI ( UN – Human Development Index) Northern Ireland could be doing worse .

    1. Norway
    2. Iceland
    3. Australia
    4. Ireland
    5. Sweden
    6. Canada
    7. Japan
    8. United States
    9. Switzerland
    10. Netherlands
    11. Finland
    12. Luxembourg
    13. Belgium
    14. Austria
    15. Denmark
    16. France
    17. Italy
    18. United Kingdom
    19. Spain
    20. New Zealand

    ‘ Of course there is also the potential for damage by doing nothing’

    About the same amount of damage as has been done in the last decade of farting around with the ‘peace’ process . The damage will be more in opportunities lost political, economic and social. The worst may be relative emisseration and retardation economically and politically in comparison to the Republic and to most of the UK regions .

    But NI has got used to that over the past 40 years and more so that should be no problem .

    Meanwhile the rest of the world will move along .

  • Crataegus

    Greenflag

    The damage will be more in opportunities lost political, economic and social.

    I totally agree with that comment, I was thinking of what many people have achieved in the last decade and compared it to what our political class have done. Whilst I would rate some quite highly (yes some are very good) collectively they are a complete and utter waste of time. However I do place a high level of responsibility on the British Government, and the senior civil servants who advise on implementation. Totally inept.

    The local politicians are playing to their collective audiences and have lost any grasp of reality or the wider world. They have become expert at splitting hairs and the finer points but fail to realise that they have become a collective bore and are of little real relevance or importance. I would sooner spend a day with bird watchers than the current crop of politicos.

    This stasis benefits no one.

  • Greenflag

    Crataegus,

    ‘The local politicians are playing to their collective audiences and have lost any grasp of reality or the wider world.’

    Given the NI political environment in particular in the last 35 years of ‘stasis’ this should come as no surprise . The inevitable outcome of sectarian division/ constitutional uncertainty and the legacy of political instability and conflict .

    The wider world does not matter for these people . For Unionist politicians there is the Westminster option and continuing subvention . For SF the doors have been reopened to collect American dollars .

    I agree that some of your politicians Unionist , nationalist and Republicans could rate ‘highly’ in a situation where ‘normal’ democracy prevails , unfortunately they’re locked into a situation which virtually ensures that their ‘talents’ will go to waste . That fact that this situation is of their own or their predecessors making is neither here nor there . Life isn’t fair and political life is even less fair .

  • crataegus

    Greenflag

    I don’t quite accept your inevitability argument as all things can change. The final lesson in the process for me is;

    If you have a peace process make sure that the arbitrator is neutral and not a major player with its own vested interests.

    The process is where it is because of poor management skills, side deals and some serious lacks of candour. The SDLP were shafted by HM Gov and SF milked the process for every ounce of publicity and the more obstinate they were the more recognition they got. On the Unionist side the UUP fell on its own sword whilst the beloved HM Gov blatantly pandered to the demands of terrorists on one hand and on the other shafted the victims. In many Unionist areas the issues around armed gangsters actually became worse post the agreement. Then just to add a bit of spice to the mix we had some strangely timed police raids, the problems surrounding collusion, good UDA, bad UDA, abuse of the legal system etc etc. Utter cock up. If it was a business those responsible would be fired.

    To resolve some of the problems you actually need some candid and frank answers to outstanding questions. You can’t build trust on a pack of lies but as you and I know pigs will sprout wings first.

    Anyway not my problem I have other interests elsewhere. If the place descends into the pit I will move on with the rest of the world, but I do wish the locals would wise up and at the very least stop supporting a pack of losers. Better to give someone else the opportunity. Elections in NI remind me of cases of physical abuse where one party in a mirage continually goes back knowing fine rightly what the other is like, utter madness.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I don’t quite accept your inevitability argument as all things can change.’

    Change comes eventually I agree but it’s timing is not inevitable . Some changes lead to dead ends and the choice is either reversal if possible or extinction .The inevitability I refer to is that which occurs when you have a ‘locked’ political system as in NI which is rooted in the very State’s existence.

    ‘If you have a peace process make sure that the arbitrator is neutral and not a major player with its own vested interests. ‘

    I agree to an extent which is why I favour the UN or EU when/if ‘repartition’ beckons . I’d qualify your arbitrator with ‘final and neutral arbitrator . First you have to get to the point where the parties agree to a final and neutral arbitrator . In NI there has never been a ‘final ‘ arbitrator just a continuing succession of Secretaries of State ( 20 ? ) each doing what he could , to either keep the lid on , or to do as little damage as possible in order not to disadvantage his/her further political career at Westminster.

    The reason there was a peace process in the first instance was due to the efforts of the Irish Government under Albert Reynolds . The other parties at the time – Unionists both UUP and DUP , HMG , Republicans and Nationalists in Northern Ireland were stuck and going nowhere slowly .

    It eventually took Senator Mitchell from the USA to bring the parties to a point which enabled them to get where they are today. Even he was not considered ‘neutral’.

    ‘To resolve some of the problems you actually need some candid and frank answers to outstanding questions. ‘

    True . However in a situation where the ‘power’ behind the talks i.e HMG has been less than candid and very reticent about giving ‘frank’ answers since it was forced to become reinvolved with NI since the late 1960’s then maybe it’s too much to ask that of the local parties ? This all goes back to the neither here nor there approach of HMG to all of Ireland in the past and to Northern Ireland in the present . We’re here because we have to be but we’d sooner be elsewhere? A kind of ‘it’s not the economy stupid it’s the natives’. True or not this message/view has permeated to the rest of the world.

    I don’t see NI as descending into the ‘pits’ or a return to the violence of the 1960’s/70s . I see instead a long period of relative political and economic decline as compared to it’s neighbours .

    I don’t see the SAA or the GFA doing anything other than slowing that descent . Perhaps ‘stasis’ is a better word than descent in this case .

    ‘but I do wish the locals would wise up’

    From their separate perspectives they don’t need to . It’s always ‘themuns’ that need the wising up:(

    ‘Anyway not my problem I have other interests elsewhere’

    You would want to have 🙂 Same here. I agree it’s sad that an area like NI which was at one time the most advanced and forward looking part of this island is now being increasingly seen as the least.

  • Crataegus

    Greenflag

    Just to mention I agree about Albert Reynolds, I have considerable regard for his skills, and also for people like Martin Mansergh. At the time you did feel that many of the players had a good grasp of the situation, the possibilities and the difficulties. They had a good over view, which is a lot more than one can say for the current players.

    You nor I will solve this one, however I feel that when change comes it may happen very quickly. The present situation is about as stable as a ship with no ballast. Post Paisley could be very interesting, in the mean time expect nothing in the era of the man who has achieved nothing that will endure.

  • Greenflag

    Crataegus,

    ‘I feel that when change comes it may happen very quickly. ‘

    You could be right .The obvious contradictions in the present political situation may generate a desire by a significant part of the electorate for an exit from the cul de sac their leaders have prepared for them ?

    As for post Paisley ? I know some people believe that not until he exits the political stage will there be any real political progress . I don’t subscribe to that belief . Paisley is the ‘unacceptable ‘face of NI unionism for Irish nationalists and republicans (never mind what Adams says) and I’ sure the reverse also applies for Adams /Mc Guinness for Unionists .