Peace process at risk from whom?

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Actually, the Provos pretty much have gone away.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams warned today that any coalition deal between Britain’s grievously wounded Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party would put the Northern Ireland peace process at risk.

Given that the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which Adams denies ever being part of despite all evidence to the contrary, has been on ceasefire for more than 20 years, to call this a hollow threat seems generous at best.

Or, as Adams frequent critic, former Republican prisoner and blanket man Thomas ‘Dixie’ Elliot, put it on Twitter:

Certainly there was a time when the kind of warning Adams gave carried real menace. But that was before 2005, when the Provos stood the vast majority of their activists down and dismantled the bulk of the operational capabilities that allowed them to prosecute their war against Britain and the Northern Irish statelet.

While command, intelligence, and internal security structures were allowed to be remain mostly intact after 2005, as British security services were compelled to acknowledge in 2015, what armed capability the PIRA retained in the years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been largely used to cow – and occasionally quiet – opposition to the political direction taken by Adams and the leadership of Provisional Republican Movement.¹

None of this is to say that a deal between the Tories and the DUP is a good thing for Northern Ireland in general or for the stability of the Six Counties in particular.  It’s just that the time is long past when Adams or any other leading figure in the Provisional Movement could credibly warn that  peace there is threatened if they don’t get their way.

This is not to say that the peace that has held for two decades is assured. There are any number of armed Republican dissident groups (sometimes derisively referred to as “alphabet soup” IRAs) fully capable of causing some degree of mayhem even if not on the horrific scale of the Troubles. And Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Defense Association, while also on ceasefire, never went so far as the PIRA in dismantling their structures and remain active to this day, primarily menacing their own communities.

But it’s really hard to say what Adams is driving at in his warning. The Provisionals are not about go back to war, and Adams and his comrades neither speak for nor have influence over the armed groups that could.

So while Sinn Fein and its supporters have good reason to vigorously protest any arrangement that further empowers the DUP, they have little actual leverage to apply.  Claims of a threatened peace process hardly qualify anymore.

¹I go into some detail on this in research I published last summer in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence.

One compromise with Republican orthodoxy Sinn Fein won’t make

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In a long interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief of staff and one of the stalwarts of Sinn Fein’s peace strategy, stood firm on one of the few pillars of traditional Republican orthodoxy still standing.

Asked if Sinn Fein would take its seats at Westminster in the event that a friendly Labour government needed its support in parliament, McGuinness was adamant:

No. Our position has been on the record for many decades and I don’t envisage any change whatsoever; there is no mood for it within the party. Quite apart from the principle involved it could damage the cohesion of mainstream republicanism. I think that is not something that a leadership that has been very precious about cohesiveness would contemplate.

He denied that this position was underpinned by fear of a backlash from Sinn Fein supporters who up until now have gone along with every compromise the party’s leadership has made, from declaring a permanent end to the armed campaign, standing down the IRA, decommissioning weapons, to recognizing the legitimacy of the PSNI, taking seats in the partitionist institutions of Stormont and Leinster House, and administering British rule as partners in government with the DUP.

That is not the reason. The reason is that we have a principled republican position. Politicians are criticised left, right and centre for not having principled positions but on this matter we don’t see any advantage in change either. The negotiations that I have been involved in with successive British Prime Ministers over the the last 20-odd years have borne more fruit than me being the MP for Mid Ulster. I had more access than many Labour and Conservative backbenchers had.

So that settles it then. This is the one Republican principle left on which the party stands firm. Until it doesn’t.

And that time will come, as McGuinness unwittingly acknowledged, when the party’s leaders no longer see any advantage in leaving the last pillar of Republican orthodoxy standing.

 

 

What reconciliation is, and isn’t

 

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In the midst of the controversy surrounding the historic meeting and handshake between Prince Charles and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams last week, I reached out to one of my Belfast friends, a steadfast supporter of Adams and the party he has led since 1986, to get his take on what, if anything, it all meant.

My friend has long argued to me the virtues of Sinn Fein’s “long game” of transition from armed struggle to “ordinary” politics as the surest path to achieving a united Ireland. A key part of this long game requires that the party not stay shackled to a past in which violence and bloodshed was the currency of both revolution and state reaction.

My friend wrote:

We can’t strangulate ourselves with the past, while I couldn’t shake his hand, I understood why Gerry accepted his handshake. A new Ireland will only be achieved when we take big steps, such as this.

And he’s right. Reconciliation with the past, and with past foes, requires a willingness to take risks, even if those risks are today less immediate than they might have been twenty years ago. Reconciliation requires, as my friend pointed out, an acknowledgment of the suffering inflicted by and upon all sides of an armed conflict. This was, apparently, among the things that Adams and Charles discussed during a short private meeting.

Adams himself, in an interview with BBC Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster program, placed his meeting with Prince Charles squarely in the reconciliation column. You can read a full transcript of the interview here, but this is the money quote:

… we, I think, had a common view that there should be no hierarchy [of victims] and that thankfully, the conflict’s over. But all of those victims and survivors of the conflict who still seek justice need to have that justice. And if our meeting yesterday did anything I would like to think it assisted this process. And the governments and the political parties, I think, are duty-bound to build upon that because reconciliation is — it’s a personal process, I suppose, of dialogue and engagement and compromise and getting to know someone.

Sinn Fein’s critics, both north and south of the Irish border, and Republican dissidents have sung from their familiar hymnals, challenging the sincerity of Adams’ meeting with the heir to the British throne and characterizing it variously as cynical political posturing, a hypocritical about face on whether the Royal Family is welcome in Ireland, and yet another in a seemingly infinite line of betrayals and subversions of traditional Republicanism.

But there’s another criticism worth thinking about, and it gets to the heart of what reconciliation is, and what it isn’t. Adams himself alludes to it. Reconciliation is indeed personal, but it will not come about if it amounts to no more than occasional symbolic meetings between high-profile public figures. As Eamonn McCann writes in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph:

We do not have to hold the royals in high regard to make peace with our neighbours. Most of us have never been at war with them in the first place. The consolidation of peace can only be achieved by plain people making common cause across national and religious divides. That is to say, on the basis of proclaiming that it’s the people who must be sovereign.

There have been plenty of handshakes in recent years, but the hard work of actual reconciliation in Northern Ireland will be the work of generations. Some of this is taking place, both on individual and private levels and on officially supported and institutional ones, but the pace of progress can seem glacial in a place where people more readily see their differences than their similarities.

In short, symbolic gestures notwithstanding, there’s still a long way to go.

 

Distortion via simplification

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Gerry Adams on 60 Minutes.

 

One way to know that it’s Eastertide in America is the parade of Northern Ireland politicians that traditionally make pilgrimage here to: 1) receive yet another round of congratulations for “making peace” almost two decades ago; 2) accept checks from deep-pocketed American donors (in the case of Sinn Fein reps); and 3) go hat-in-hand for additional funds from the US government and investment from American companies. Most of the time these visits are largely ignored by the media here, and for good reason since they are by their very nature far from newsworthy.

This year was different in that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA commander who orchestrated the systematic bombing campaign that destroyed most of his native city of Derry in the 1970s and now serves as Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, pulled out of the annual trip in order to attend to a crisis at Stormont over welfare spending that his own party precipitated.

But while McGuinness wasn’t here, CBS’ long-running news program 60 Minutes made sure that Easter Sunday wouldn’t pass without hearing from Gerry Adams, the man who has led Sinn Fein since the mid 1980s and who is credited with (or blamed for, depending upon your perspective) orchestrating the IRA’s transition from armed struggle to conventional politics and thereby delivering the peace process. Adams’ interview, which you can watch here, garnered furious attention from the Northern Irish media, and especially from Adams’ numerous critics, who called him out for what was widely perceived as his selective and self-serving reinterpretation of events over the last forty-plus years and his own role in them.

To my mind though, what was noteworthy about the 60 Minutes interview was not what Adams had to say, but the way in which the interview itself and the reporting surrounding it revealed all of the lazy ways in which Americans tend to think about Northern Ireland, why it exploded into conflict, and what went on there during the long years of violence.

Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty captured this far better than I can in a scathing piece published a few days ago in the Belfast Telegraph in which he pillories 60 Minutes for its lazy and superficial reporting.

Take the simple description of the period as “a war between Catholics and Protestants” and “one of the longest wars of the 20th century”. Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word “war”, though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn’t true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

If you want to see a full display of all of the ways in which we tend to get Northern Ireland wrong, watch the report, and then go to O’Doherty’s commentary. It is well worth reading in full.