The long walk to peace

The House magazine 30th anniversary edition, November 2006

Some thirty years ago the situation in Northern Ireland seemed hopeless. A reformist agitation, taken to the streets resulted in major public disorder, which was used by a rejuvenated IRA to launch a terrorist campaign. The object was to compel Northern Ireland to join an all Ireland socialist republic. The IRA knew that the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland would never willingly vote for that, but thought they might give into violence, or at least that the British government would abandon them.

By the mid seventies violence had come down from the 1972 peak when some 500 were murdered, but was still running in the hundreds each year. Bombs regularly targeted business and people indiscriminately as well as the security forces. Tens of thousands had moved home to places they considered safer. Social life was drastically curtailed. With tourism destroyed and little investment to counter the drastic decline of traditional manufacturing industry, unemployment rose to over 20% for males. Repeated political initiatives had failed, as had promising talks initiated by the local parties.

Today Northern Ireland has been transformed. Paramilitary violence has virtually ended and most paramilitaries seem to recognise that it is time to call it a day. Not a few paramilitaries have privatised themselves and focus on racketeering, aided by the Chancellor’s insistence on much higher taxes on certain items compared with the UK’s neighbours.

The economy has prospered growing steadily for well over a decade, in the earlier years, at a rate well above the UK average, and in the last five years, our gross value added was 28%, in line with the UK as a whole. Manufacturing output increased by 2.4% over the last year. Unemployment is at 4.3%, actually below the UK equivalent of 5.5%. Most of the new jobs have come in locally created new small businesses.

The quality of life continues to improve. People can go and socialise where they want without fear. Belfast, with the Waterfront Hall, the Odyssey Arena, scores of new hotels, restaurants, night clubs and the host of new business developments, modern apartment blocks, is such that a time traveller from 1976 would need the sight of the Cave Hills to be sure he was in the same city.

How did it happen?

The people of Northern Ireland though at times close to despair, never gave up. The British government did not abandon the democratic principle that it was for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their future. While we often felt that the Irish government could do more, its basic orientation was to oppose violence and support moderate nationalism.

This provided a stable framework ensuring that the terrorists could never win, and enabled the security forces to operate with increasing success. Terrorism was not defeated by firepower and manpower alone. On the contrary, after mistakes in the early years, policy shifted towards an intelligence led approach and to ‘Ulsterisation’, the concentration of security force operations and responsibility in local hands if only because of the need for personnel who were steeped in the local culture. This combined with a steadfast refusal to deal politically with the IRA until violence ceased, sapped its will to continue the “armed struggle”.

The Northern Ireland case points up the need for a total strategy, a rigidly disciplined and coordinated approach by all the different branches of the state. When this strategy broke down, as it did at times it merely delayed the final settlement by giving hope to the terrorists. Key officials, politicians, and even military commanders, occasionally sent apparently emollient signals to the IRA. They gave sustenance and new life to the terrorist campaign, encouraging the hope in some quarters that ‘one more heave’ would see its goals fulfilled.

That hope did not die until after Canary Wharf. The brief campaign that followed that “spectacular” was a diminuendo. Republicans had great difficulty in sustaining it and discovered that even their South Armagh fastness had been penetrated. They then ended their campaign and gave their adherence to the Mitchell principles of peace and democracy and to the ground rules of a talks process which had begun in their absence.

The talks produced a hard won agreement. Their implementation was even harder, mainly due to the republican reluctance to implement their obligation to disarm and dismantle their terrorist structures. They claimed this was humiliation, but I suspect that the real reason was that they had not been frank with their foot soldiers as to the settlement they were buying into.

Nonetheless, an innovative and radical form of power sharing between parties with wildly divergent communal interests was made possible. For almost two years under my leadership as First Minister, Northern Ireland experienced something considered unthinkable only a few years before. Cross border co-operation, once so controversial worked harmoniously on matters of mutual benefit, because we got the architecture right.

That cross-community government fell but not through any inherent design fault in the structures negotiated in 1998. It fell because, as the Prime Minister conceded in his Belfast Harbour Office speech in 2002, republicans had been allowed to use the threat of a return to violence to extract further concessions. The government’s failure to enforce key terms of the peace accord encouraged some elements in the IRA to engage in brazen adventures at home and abroad, which finally triggered the collapse in October 2002.

The government’s subsequent failure to impose any penalty on continued republican criminality, even after the $25 million Northern Bank raid in December2004 then the biggest bank robbery in British history, produced a revulsion in the unionist electorate which could be measured in the substantial swing to the DUP in the 2005 Parliamentary election.

Will current efforts succeed? As always there are reasons for pessimism. The DUP have never in their existence taken a difficult decision or ever tried to achieve something. In the absence of positive leadership, the republican convoy continues to move at the pace of the slowest. Government policy continues to be unbalanced, over-solicitous of republican difficulties, too lax in upholding the basic principles of the Agreement.

Nonetheless there is no other show in town. The DUP are not now trying to smash the agreement. The changes they seek are merely camouflage for their acceptance of what they once opposed. Their difficulties largely created by their previous inaccurate, exaggerated attacks on that agreement. The republicans know they have nowhere else to go. Indeed they do need progress now as their support in the Irish Republic is less certain that it once was.

So the circus may lurch forward. But many in Northern Ireland are not engaged. Life is good, and for some good because they have found the off switch for local politics. Despite the constant efforts of the Hain ministerial team to create annoyance, I am not sure folk at home want it back.

(November 30th, 2006)


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