The peace process sceptics need addressing as the governments prepare to intervene

People who had to catch their breath over Gerry Adams’ arrest are now be having second wind. The former Labour secretary of state Shaun Woodward has called  for  a referendum over the heads of the local parties  on what sort of mechanism they want to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. This may be commended as an initiative for jolting what remains the sovereign government and its Dublin partner into exercising their responsibilities in a low intensity existential crisis. But hooray! The Irish Times reports that the two governments are bestirring themselves at last in what looks like a Dublin move.

The Government is making preparations with British and American support to bring Northern parties back to the table this summer for a new attempt to settle questions about the past, flags and parades.

Dublin will await the outcome of European and local elections this month before pressing ahead with the new initiative. However, it is being cast as a fresh attempt to revive proposals developed by retired American diplomat Richard Haass on which the parties failed to strike an agreement in the last round of talks on New Year’s Eve

Woodward’s idea plays to the hunch that the silent majority of the people may be ahead of the parties and need some device for breaking out of deadlock. Yet it’s fraught with obvious difficulties  An appeal to popular majoritarianism above devolved parliamentary power sharing would be a high risk operation and would need  the parties’ acquiescence at least and it is far from clear that it would appeal to them.

The challenges of wording any such referendum are daunting and Woodward offers no clues. Do you want an amnesty to aid truth telling or not? Would the people be asked to vote for sanctions against former paramilitaries and police officers who refuse to cooperate? Referendums aren’t viable unless the proposition can be reduced to a single yes or no question. Nor do they work unless the result can be made stick.

I’ve been having my own second wind about the Adams arrest. The people who are ignored are not mainly victims but those who believe the peace process is founded on a monstrous lie. Unappealing in their bitterness as they often are, they will have got some satisfaction over Adams’s detention and Sinn Fein’s palpable discomfiture. By holding Adams under arrest and questioning him for so long about his background, the police were demonstrating their scepticism for his mantra of denial of IRA membership and responsibility of the IRA campaign and acts such as Mrs McConville’s murder. They were failing to live up to a fundamental politesse of the peace process and this got Sinn Fein’s goat.  The police must have known they stood little chance of wearing him down, but the episode remains an important public demonstration of their scepticism.

At his news conference, affronted by how he was handled, the leader was torn between Adams the old lag and Adams the statesman. He mocked and patronised the police, for the” uneatable” food, the behaviour of the officers who told him his detention was being extended twice .“like John Cleese” and patronised the handling conditions as “ not up to 21st century standards for a modern police force”. About this his observations may well be accurate but his self regard under some stress was revealing. Adams the statesman affirmed his support for the police and the peace process – why would he not, when Sinn Fein are prospering? But Adams the old lag was signalling to the comrades; hold your nerve, admit nothing. Without an amnesty, denial is a strategy against arrest for membership and subsequent interrogation about activity. The challenge remains: prove it. This understandably gets the goat of the peace process sceptics.

What do the massed ranks of Sinn Fein supporters think about this behaviour? Do they believe the armed struggle was justified or are just grateful that it’s over? Are they voting so to speak for Adams the old lag or Adams the statesman? Or both, life often being binary? I just don’t know.  Do the questions belong to the past already or are they still very much part of the present and lie at the basis of community distrust? Similar questions can be asked of unionists but less focussed on a leader. It is hard to see how Shaun Woodward’s referendum could help us with the answers.

The basic paradox is that the Troubles would not have happened without the likes of Gerry Adams nor would they have ended as they did. But sixteen years on, his passing from the scene along with his generation of old warriors  on both sides would make the peace that bit easier to live with. In this respect perhaps, Sinn Fein could take a leaf out of the DUP’s book.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Newman

    We are also torn Brian between an understandable desire to uphold and live by the rule of law and coming to terms with the status of a conflict that for many was not predicated on the normal conditions or pre requisites for a war. The generations passing theory is as coherent a view as any and I wonder whether the compromise of the GFA with its emphasis on a the 2 year maximum sentence was more prescient than we realised, keeping as it did a balance between the conflicting theories on the status of the conflict.

  • Charles_Gould


    I also think the 2 year sentence combined with standard judicial process is the way to go. I.e. what we have.

  • Master McGrath

    A very perceptive and I believe accurate piece from Brian here, especially in drawing attention to the essential paradoxes tied up with the present dealing with the problems left from the past. The pinning of the Woodward notion of a Referendum as an empty one by indicating that there is no ‘question’ available to be put.
    But as well there is a nod to the sections of the population who are dissatisfied with the notions underpinning the GFA.
    This is valuable as what worries is the notion that the GFA now seems to have the same scared cow status as the ‘peace process’ offers as an orthodoxy that must not be questioned.
    Those who offer any view that is not in accordance with SF’s notion as to what the orthodoxy is, are simply bracketed as having no mandate and dissident or simply against the present situation.
    The lack of flexibility of approach to new situations and the instant return to easy long-winded answers stifles the necessary incentive to progress and move things forward.
    A well know theory of society development is based on the notion of ‘dis-jointed incrementalism’, where developments are small, not conforming to a rigid set of circumstances or a plan, and delivering real change over a period of time as one decision builds on another.
    What NI has is only part of that – the disjointed part – and it is beginning to show in the cracks appearing in the hegemony that certain organisations hold over communities.
    What is worrying is that the SoS seems to not at all be up to doing the job if strains and stress lines begin to form in the political edifice and I believe that the intrusion of Woodward and Hain (a meddling and really disastrous SoS in his day) giving advice from the sidelines adds to the misery and not the solution of the problems.
    All the time as we drift again to another marching season – and even that as a term is frightening as the suggestion in the use of the word season is a sort of ‘natural’ order is implied in something that is entirely man made and avoidable in both the long and short term.

  • Mick Fealty


    I think that’s right. There has to be some edges to the world. The political incontinence bred by supposing otherwise is not pretty.

  • Nothing can be agreed in advance of 2016 elections North and South. SF is focused on those elections. Everything will be regarded with those elections in mind. Forget the two governments. Neither will want to fail, and fail they will without an open agenda and a willingness to talk. That is blank sheet stuff. Not likely.

  • Brian Walker

    Yes but with respect, that’s not among the main questions for today.

    These include:

    – Is dissatisfaction on both sides so great that legal investigations should be stepped up beyond the present arbitrary handful?

    – Should former police officers identified as collusion suspects by de Silva and soldiers identified by informal inquiry in the Ballymurphy massacre and many more former paramilitaries, be arrested for questioning as was Adams?

    – Should the entire record of the tarnished HET be reviewed as recommended by Amnesty International?

    – Should up to 300 potentially unsafe convictions be reviewed?

    – Is it right that inquiries appear to insulate people from prosecution on grounds of lack of cooperation with the authorities? Should some form of sanctions be applied against them?

    = Or alternatively, are people only now beginning to realise the complexity of the peace process and have to decide afresh whether to accept or reject it?

  • Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

    I think one of the greatest problems one has is the tradition in Northern Ireland of the Unionist and Nationalist sides permanently winding each other up – best example the marching season. As a result any discussion of the historical legacy turns into an exercise in mutual one-upmanship i.e. who started what, who committed the worst atrocity etc et bleeding cetera. All parties involved, including the governments in Dublin and London have blood on their hands. Get over it. I think the best thing would be bring up Desmond Tutu and have a Peace and Reconciliation Commission with amnesties for all who genuinely partake. I doubt we will see such a thing however, as I do not believe the Irish and British will ever allow the full extent of state collusion in paramilitary violence to become known. It’s easier to let the Nationalists blame Paisley et al and the Unionist blame Grizzly agus a chairde.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Those who have argued that violence was either justifiable or unavoidable in the past, but would be wrong and unnecessary now because ‘times have changed’, seem to have forgotten that times did not stop changing in 1998 or 2001. If certain acts could be seen differently in the context of the peace process than in the heat and panic of the 1970s, it should not come as a surprise to SF or the UK government that they look different again now. Public fictions or silences are not to be counted on indefinitely just because they were useful to a powerful majority at one point in time. In amongst all the competing political demands to be given ‘the truth’, people eventually get fed up to the back teeth with not telling their own.

  • Brian Walker

    Ní Dhuibhir
    Its certainly part of the plan for victims to tell their stories. Former paramilitaries and police could join the debate in lien on tape or live without necessarily confessing to crimes. The work of Peter Shirlow is very informative here.

  • Greenflag

    “The basic paradox is that the Troubles would not have happened without the likes of Gerry Adams nor would they have ended as they did. ”

    Nor would they have happened without the likes of the then ruling Unionist Government of Northern Ireland .

    An older friend of mine ( A Dubliner ) who spent a long hot summer in the USA in the summer of 1969 told me before he passed on many years ago how he first heard of Northern Ireland and it’s troubles . He was working with some other Irish students -Dublin and Galway and three lads from England . Two of the English student were from Birmingham and one was from Halifax .The three happened to be Queen’s University Students .

    One day one of the English lads came into the place where they all worked and said ‘Theres war in Ireland ‘.

    My Dublin friend thought he was joking so he replied with who ? The USSR ? The English lad replied that it was between the Protestants and Catholics in Belfast .

    But why ? asked the now concerned Dubliner .

    ‘ It should have happened yeasr ago said the Birmingham student as he related how in his experience having been in Belfast for a few years Catholics were discriminated against etc etc etc . The other two English lads agreed with him and gave the Dubliner an ‘education ‘ in the then socio economic /political state of Belfast .

    When he returned to Dublin said friend who was uninvolved in politics always took the view that whatever troubles there were in Northern Ireland – Unionists brought them on themselves . They had been after all the ruling and only party in government for the preceding 50 years .

  • Greenflag

    ‘coming to terms with the status of a conflict that for many was not predicated on the normal conditions or pre requisites for a war. ‘

    For many but not all . Given the preponderant power -military and economic of the UK and the then political power of the ruling Unionist one party government and it’s institutionalised gerrymander and the failure of that Government in it’s dealings with some 40% of the population of Northern Ireland then conflict was in some shape or form probably inevitable .

    Could it have been avoided ? Given what we understand today about the then nature of political unionism in Ireland and Irish republicanism – probably not .

    Where does that leave us today ?

    In noman’s land with an uneasy peace and a barely alive power sharing government .

    But there is no practical alternative to the GFA or is there ? And if there is what is it ?

    Political unionism had it’s last chance to have voluntary power sharing with the SDLP and Sunningdale . As of now it’s mandatory power sharing with SF and so it will remain until the NI State withers away into non existence and a new political paradigm comes into force on this island .

  • tacapall

    “Yes but with respect, that’s not among the main questions for today.

    These include: – Should up to 300 potentially unsafe convictions be reviewed”

    Brian are you suggesting miscarriages of justice be linked to OTR’s or unsolved murders etc. Should those innocent victims of the British justice system who done nothing wrong and are still alive forever be tarnished and barred from emigrating or visiting some countries because of something they did not commit for the sake of balancing the scales and giving the illusion of fair play.

  • Brian Walker

    tacapall life is complicated enough without your tangled web ….

  • Turgon

    Brian Walker,
    I think your comment at 10 am was the correct one and may I say highly perceptive (unlike me to praise you).

    The questions you pose are all valid and the answer to all is probably yes.

    Better, however, is the last question: should the agreement be renegotiated?

    It was always suspected that constructive ambguity was used in the initial process as well as hot housing and even bullying, blackmail etc. However, the true extent of what can only be described at the two faced dishonesty of the Blair government is now being realised. The degree to which they were willing to let the end justify the means was almost incredible.

    A new negotiation without the hot housing etc. might be much better. However, most importantly, without the credible spectre of the threat of wholescale renewed terrorist violence it is likely that unionists would not give as much as they did last time. Also without as weak a negotiator as Trimble, hobbled as he was by his own inadequacies along with his opponents in both the UUP and DUP it is unlikely Robinson would give as much.

    Republicans are seen by unionists (and by their own claims at the time) to have gained more than unionists from the Belfast Agreement and St Andrew’s although better was no unionist triumph. As such it is highly unlikely that Sinn fein would agree to any renegotiation and indeed they would be fools to agree to a complete renegotiation. As such forcing a full renegotiation would be seen as a unionist win and I doubt the governments would be prepared to countenance it.

    You might feel that a renegotiation would be about getting a more stable government, dealing with the past and imroving the situation rather than any wins or loses in the zero sum game. I suspect, however, any renegotiation with that as an aim would be seen as a pro union position as it runs counter to Sinn Fein’s the north is an unstable and failed statelet narrative.

  • tacapall

    Brian when you happen to be in that category its a perfectly valid question.

  • Charles_Gould

    I think I answer “YES” to all Brian’s questions of 10.03 AM.

  • looneygas

    From your 2nd last paragraph,
    “What do the massed ranks of Sinn Fein supporters think about this behaviour? Do they believe the armed struggle was justified or are just grateful that it’s over? Are they voting so to speak for Adams the old lag or Adams the statesman? Or both, life often being binary? I just don’t know.”

    I may be wrong on this, but I think the way binary works is that each switch can be either ON or OFF. There’s a new thing called quantum computing, where these more intelligent experimental computers can seem to hold two opposing propositions to be true at the same time (switch may be both On AND Off), a la Schroedinger’s cat and perhaps your characterisation of Gerry Adams.
    Hope no-one’s head explodes thinking about GA being both dead and alive.

    In any case, maybe life is more quantum than binary.

  • Kensei

    If people are answering “YES!!!” to Brian’s questions they either haven’t thought it through or believe in principle beyond reason. If, somehow, you could wade through the years and expend enough sweat and treasure to actually even attempt it, it risks dangerous side effects – what does the former Provo or Loyalist do, knowing this is coming? Even if it somehow avoids the worst of that, it is going to polarise people – one side is going to be seen as taking the burnt; if not both.

    How many convictions for a two year sentence do people think is worth never, ever knowing the truth about what happened? How much instability is the moral high ground worth? Maybe you believe on is enough. Fair enough. My opinion is both sides are going to have to accept there will never be justice for the vast, vast majority of families. Getting some semblance of the truth might be possible.

    That’s a shit message, but I can’t see how anything else is realistic. Is there an example of any similar conflict in the world where there have been large scale convictions after the fighting stopped?


    What you are doing there is projecting fantasy. Any renegotiation doesn’t start from the position in 1997, it starts from the position now. Given the obvious principle that people only make deals when there is mutual advantage, that means Unionism is going to have concede things to Nationalism in order to get a deal done. Even if Unionism gets the better of the deal, it’s not bringing the RUC back. The fantasy that a harder line would have won a better result is almost as bad as the fantasy that a free hand would have done for the IRA. At least you correctly note it is not in SF’s interest to meekly concede a lot of trinkets for unionism.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think that a referendum to put to the people ideas for dealing with the past is a bad idea – too blunt an instrument for such a complex problem plus people have already spoken through the GFA.

    It is the lack of political will to find a way around the blockages to formulating a comprehensive plan/approach for dealing with the past which is the problem.

  • David Crookes

    Here is a nightmare.

    You hold a referendum with two options: do we try to deal with the past, or do we forget about the past and move on?

    Aggrieved voters say deal with the past, and score 52%.

    Forward-looking voters say forget about the past, and score 48%.

    The overall poll is phenomenally low, partly because people who didn’t live through the Troubles don’t know what the referendum is about, and partly because lots of people aren’t interested.

    Nobody wins, and the overall confusion is greater than before.

    * * * *

    Forget about renegotiating the 1998 agreement. You know what would happen. Mervyn Gibson would be asked by the DUP to represent them in the negotiations. A graver fact, with which both ‘victims’ and would-be renegotiators would have to deal, is the lapse of sixteen years. Half a generation has passed.

    It is possible that the recent Adams affair represents a decision of the Grown Up People that there are going to be no more enquiries. It will be interesting if SF worthies are from now on less clamant in their demand for enquiries into particular cases.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “A new negotiation without the hot housing ”

    What would you like nationalism to give Unionism ?

  • Granni Trixie

    I so agree about the hot housing.


    Would you not concede that there is another way forward – to consider what is best all round ie for all the people …not a trade off and the lowest common denominator.

  • “But sixteen years on, his passing from the scene along with his generation of old warriors on both sides would make the peace that bit easier to live with. In this respect perhaps, Sinn Fein could take a leaf out of the DUP’s book.”


    But surely, Brian, the DUP’s decision to replace Paisley as leader had much to do with his age and his time in power as party leader. He had been a party leader since he founded the Protestant Unionist Party in 1966–thus he had a 20-year headstart on Gerry who only became leader of Sinn Fein in 1986 after Rory O’Bradaigh split to form Republican Sinn Fein. And Gerry is today 65 y.o. instead of 80 some. Part of the reason Paisley was replaced was that his age was affecting his performance, that has not yet occurred with Adams and may not occur for several more years. Although I bet Martin McGuinness appreciates the sentiment.

  • Charles_Gould


    I enjoyed reading your counter argument, because it was well put.

    A quick rejoinder. Isn’t some principle about the past needed to build a better foundation for the future?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Granni Trixie

    “Would you not concede that there is another way forward”

    I do not see it.

    What do you think needs changed?

  • Republic of Connaught

    Brian Walker:

    “= Or alternatively, are people only now beginning to realise the complexity of the peace process and have to decide afresh whether to accept or reject it?”

    And do the people in the rest of Ireland and in Britain get a vote on this?

    Perhaps we should have a joint vote in the 26 counties and in Britain about whether the perpetually troublesome people who live in the six counties of Northern Ireland should be deported to some destination of their choice, paid for jointly by the Irish and British governments. Let’s leave the six counties as a barren wasteland; then loyalists and republicans can accept it as a draw and enjoy their lives in some other part of the world.

    How about that solution? I’m certain it would get a massive YES vote in Ireland and Britain.

  • Granni Trixie

    To clarify: sectarian perspectives and analyses lead to trade offs rather than a focus on what is right and what is likely to work. I would also like to see a renewed agreement to work together – politicians modelling good behaviour no matter how they feel inside. No casting up the past at every turn round etc.

    In other words the problem of the impact of th past is constant but if the approach and lack of will to tackle it remains we will continue to tortuously address it piecemeal fashion. And people will continue to be disillusioned as to the efficacy of politics.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Granni Trixie

    “what is right”

    Any chance of a real world example?

  • Granni Trixie

    Ignoring or denial that the past is impacting negatively is not right hence acknowledging that is ‘right’

    Will get back to you….am just going out into the real world to canvass.

  • Alan N/Ards


    I’m not sure how “getting some semblance of truth” is going to ease the pain of the bereaved. Many people know why their loved ones were killed. They don’t need a commission to find out the truth. Many know that they were simply killed because they were catholic /protestant or because of their political allegiance. Others know that their loved ones were killed because they were in the police or army etc. I’m sure many victims families know that they will never get justice but giving people an amnesty to say what they did is surely wrong. If a person is genuinely remorseful he/she should admit their guilt and do the two years in prison. Let them man up and move this place on.

  • Greenflag

    ‘However, the true extent of what can only be described at the two faced dishonesty of the Blair government is now being realised. The degree to which they were willing to let the end justify the means was almost incredible.’

    After 40 fruitless years of violence and no political negotiations between Unionist political representatives and their Nationalist ?Republican opponents then who can blame HMG if it took two faced dishonesty to get some kind of political solution .

    Of course the truly honest solution would have been for HMG to withdraw from Northern Ireland and leave it to the locals to sort it out . I guess by about they might have stopped burying the dead 🙁

    The fact that Unionist political representatives were not ‘up ‘ to the job of negotiating with the likes of Blair , Mitchell and the Irish Government is their problem . Half the unionist population voted for the GFA and 90% of the nationalist /republicans which in itself tells any observer that the latter community were more interested in a political settlement than another generation of conflict .

    There’ll be no renegotiation of the GFA . The DUP leader can of course walk out of the Assembly and stay outside . He can follow in Molyneux’s footsteps and do nothing for 25 years apart from whine for full integration a la Finchley .

    But thats not going to happen .HMG doesn’t want it to happen .

    The British Government needs to man up and declare a general amnesty for all troubles related matters prior to the 1998 GFA . The local politicians are unable to do so for local reasons understandably .

    So insted of what Turgon call’s Blair’s two faced blatant dishonesty perhaps we can have Cameron’s janus faced honesty .All he has to do is to tell the people of Northern Ireland that it’s past time to move on and work together for a better future .

    Otherwise the local aggrieved will be navel gazing into the next century still looking for a perfect justice which is simply not practical even if desirable .

  • Reader

    Greenflag: The British Government needs to man up and declare a general amnesty for all troubles related matters prior to the 1998 GFA . The local politicians are unable to do so for local reasons understandably .
    I’m normally a bit cagey about the words “can” and “can’t” when politicians get involved.
    However, I believe that the British Government can’t unilaterally declare an amnesty over the heads of the people here – it won’t stick. However, with a referendum and/or the Irish Government backing them, they can declare an amnesty over the heads of the local politicians.

  • Kensei


    The principle is truth for amnesty as in South Africa. Maybe its a conviction and no jail, but essentially an amnesty.


    It is not as simple as “killed for religion”. Who was involved? What happened to the body? Was the person ever caught? Was the right person caught? What was the precise details? Was the person an informer – whether you think that heroic or bad? Etc etc.

    I accept none of that may matter to people. It might matter to some. Its probably all most people can hope for. Maybe some guilt ridden few will fess up and take the two years. Most won’t. They will say nothing, grow old and die. The families of most victims will never get any answers, be it IRA victims or loyalist victims or state victims. Things will rear up occasionally and bite SF or bite the Government and so on, but people will believe what they want.

    I don’t suggest that option is without danger of refighting the past but it seems more likely.

    Another unpopular statement – the focus on victims runs the risk of sacrificing the future at the altar of the past. If being unable to move on as a society means being unable to move on until they all have justice, if not peace, does that condemn us to relives past battles for ever? It’s an unpalatable question, but it is there. Spain and many South American countries just commited to silence about their conflicts. Was that the best of bad options? Don’t have an answer. But not sure it is as straightforward as focus on the victims; they become political currency too.

  • Charles_Gould


    I would regard amnesty as a completely inappropriate approach – it suggests forgiveness and that is out of the question.

  • Kensei

    It doesn’t mean forgiveness. It means people not going to jail.

    I understand the reason people have to object. I’ve just not see any sort of workable alternative.

  • Greenflag


    “I believe that the British Government can’t unilaterally declare an amnesty over the heads of the people here – it won’t stick.”

    What’s sticking right now ? The Assembly is possibly on it’s last legs . Haas could’nt get the parties to agree and a referendum as David Crookes pointed out above could jmake things worse .People have different views on the troubles , on history and on the status of the NI State and that is’nt going to change .

    which will continue anyway amnesty or no amnesty .

    .Charles Gould above believes ‘forgiveness is out of the question ‘ .He’s obviously a Christian .In any event it’s only the relatives of the victims who can ‘forgive ‘ and whether there is a general amnesty or not the relatives will make their own ‘forgiveness ‘ or not decision .

    HMG is the ‘sovereign ‘ government . Ideally it would be far better if the local NI parties could agree to focus on the future instead of the past . Continually digging up NI’s past for the last 40 years or the previous 60 in NI or Ireland’s for the past several centuries is only going to make matters within NI worse at least in terms of ‘freeing up’ the local politicians to adapt to a changing political , economic and demographic environment .

    Condemning people to fight past battles forever is a long slow lingering death for any society and one which the people of NI can well do without .

    Where there is law there is injustice and where there is no law there is even more injustice .Northern Ireland has straddled that particular fence since it’s inception .It’s long past time to move on and build a better future .