A few years ago, an encounter with a senior Irish diplomat made me despair about the future of Northern Ireland. The scene was a workshop on the peace process at an Oxbridge conference of politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and assorted hand-wringers.
In response to a suggestion that, because too many concessions had been made to paramilitaries, the process was founded on sand, the diplomat blurted out in an anguished tone: “It can’t fail. It can’t. Not after all the time and effort we’ve invested.”
It was then that I realised why the British and Irish politicians and civil servants driving the negotiations appeared ready to do anything to keep ruthless terrorists on board: the project had become personal.
The tragedy of the collapse of the Belfast (aka Good Friday) Agreement of 1998 that we are now witnessing is that it could have worked. Although as a deal it was flawed, ambiguous and in many ways morally offensive, it had within it the possibility of establishing a stable power-sharing arrangement between Northern Ireland’s largely Protestant unionist majority (who wish to maintain the union with Great Britain) and the largely Catholic minority of constitutional nationalists and militant republicans (who aspire to a united Ireland).
Yet because the negotiations surrounding the agreement were more about appeasement than real peace, not only has the whole complicated edifice finally disintegrated, but it is now clear that over many years two well-meaning liberal governments (three, if you count the Clinton administration) allowed a small group of criminals to play them for fools.
David Adams, once a spokesman for a group of loyalist (unionist) paramilitaries fighting for Northern Ireland to remain within the UK, then a participant in peace negotiations and now a fine commentator persecuted by some of his old colleagues (dog killed, death threats, driven from his house), recently summed up the whole sad story: “For a full 10 years critical faculties were suspended while wishful thinking and a dogged determination not to upset the finely tuned sensitivities of former combatants were the order of the day.
”Far from suffering any real pressure to change, paramilitaries of every stripe have had egos massaged and been courted by the political establishments of three sovereign nations. That approach caused enormous damage to the peace process. Paramilitaries quickly realised that they could behave virtually as they liked, with little or no sanction.”
The aim of the peace process was to put an end to the political violence that has periodically plagued Northern Ireland since the island was partitioned in 1920, a division that led to the creation of the predominantly Catholic independent state in the south and the small, mainly Protestant province in the north, which remained a part of the United Kingdom. This resulted in discrimination against the pro-British minority in the south and the anti-British minority in the north.
In 1969, the moribund Irish Republican Army (IRA) - committed to securing a United Ireland - capitalised on the violence that erupted out of Northern Irish civil rights marches and launched a vicious campaign which eventually led to almost 3,700 deaths on all sides. Most were in Northern Ireland, but some were in the Republic, on the British mainland and even the Continent.
By the late 1980s it was clear that there could be no military victory, and a peace process began behind the scenes. Paramilitary ceasefires were secured by the mid-1990s and eventually, in 1998, the Good Friday agreement was finalised. The essence of the deal was that the British government would devolve power to the province’s politicians, the paramilitaries would disband and, in exchange for concessions to nationalists over power-sharing and cross-border co-operation, all parties would accept the principle that Northern Ireland would stay British until a majority voted otherwise.
The key question for those negotiating the agreement was one Tony Blair would ask himself frequently from October 1997, when he first met republican leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness: “Do I believe these people? Do I trust them?” He did after not too long, for he badly wanted to. Indeed, according to a disillusioned insider, Blair came to think of Adams and McGuinness as friends, modernisers - New Republicans.
It was not until five years later, when police investigating a republican spy ring in the newly created Northern Ireland assembly in Stormont seized documents from the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, that Blair learned that his nickname was “the Naive Idiot”.
No doubt Adams and McGuinness explained the insult by blaming the forces of conservatism within republicanism. Certainly, it did not seem to change Blair’s style of negotiation, which continued to be essentially Kantian, springing from the assumption that mankind is fundamentally benevolent and will respond to unilateralist gestures of goodwill.
The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, is closer to the Groatian, or fixer model, which is based on composing differences. Unfortunately Sinn Fein/IRA prefer the Machiavellian, or W.C. Fields approach - “Never give a sucker an even break.” Therefore even after taking seats in government at Stormont, they procrastinated and prevaricated and their blatant breaches of the agreement led to the Northern Ireland Executive being repeatedly suspended because of unionists crying foul and the British government had to rule the province again.
Yet despite the bleak prospects, the peace processors refused to give up. By last November, it appeared that a breakthrough in the apparently endless stalemate was at hand. Speechwriters for the British and Irish prime ministers were crafting statesmanlike phrases to celebrate the anticipated deal between the militant republicans of Sinn Fein/IRA and the hard-line unionists of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Journalists were writing once again of an historic “Deal to end all deals” in the province.
Irish-Americans were expecting that March would bring a St Patrick’s Day party in the White House that would be attended by Paisley and McGuinness, who by then would be Northern Ireland’s first and deputy first ministers; and to encourage Sinn Fein, the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern (no relation), had said he looked forward to seeing them some day in a coalition government in the Republic.
But even as this was happening, it emerged that Bertie Ahern had agreed that in the event of a deal he would release from jail the killers of an Irish policeman, Jerry McCabe, who was murdered by IRA men in 1996 during a botched robbery - notwithstanding his earlier promises to McCabe’s widow, Ann, that they would serve their full term. “Who is running the government?” she asked. “Sinn Fein and the IRA or Bertie Ahern?” And although for a while the relentless pressure for a peace deal prevailed, this question began seriously to bother many Irish people.
Eventually, in early December, the much-heralded breakthrough collapsed after the IRA refused to sign a commitment “to uphold and not to endanger anyone’s personal rights and safety”. This was unnecessary, said Adams, allowed as usual by governments to maintain the fiction of being an intermediary even though the number of people who still believe that he and McGuinness don’t control both the IRA and Sinn Fein is shrinking by the day. “If we get a statement from the IRA which says they will not be involved in any activities which would jeopardise or run against an agreement, that should be good enough for everyone,” he said.
That would probably have been enough to satisfy both Blair and Ahern, but not the Irish minister for justice, Michael McDowell, president of the Progressive Democrats, the tiny party in coalition with Ahern’s Fianna Fail. With bitter experience of republican casuistry, he recognised that on Planet Sinn Fein/IRA, not jeopardising the agreement merely meant not attacking British targets; it would not stop the IRA kneecapping and mutilating in its own ghettoes, nor its smuggling, robbing and general racketeering.
Simultaneously, there came an unexpected appeal court announcement in Colombia that three republicans found in 2001 carrying false passports had indeed been training Marxist narco-terrorists. They were each sentenced to 17 years but absconded, probably to Venezuela.
Paisley’s DUP, the self-styled bastion of law and order, showed little interest in either issue. Unionists anxious for a deal seemed content in principle to see a form of apartheid in Northern Ireland: if the Taigs (a rude term for Catholics) wanted to break the law, it was a matter of indifference as long as they kept to their own turf. The key issue, they said, in the last stages of negotiation, was “the modalities of decommissioning”.
When the devolution deal fell through, republicans initially had some success in blaming DUP intransigence, for Paisley had insisted that there be photographic evidence of the promised act of IRA decommissioning of weapons. Sinn Fein said this was an arrogant, triumphalist and therefore unacceptable demand aimed at humiliating the IRA. But it was in fact the issue of criminality that was the true sticking-point. This was borne out a few days later when the news broke of the £26.5m robbery of the Northern Bank that took place on December 20 and involved the abduction, imprisonment and threatening of hostages.
The heads of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Irish Garda, Blair, Ahern and the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) - whose British, Irish and US members oversee the implementation of the peace process - have stated on the basis of overwhelming intelligence evidence that this was an operation carried out by the IRA.
The normal republican tactic of stout denial did not work this time. The suggestion that loyalist paramilitaries were guilty was laughed down, since the fractured loyalist organisations focus on drug-dealing and are just about equipped to rob the occasional post office. Allegations that the robbery was carried out by British “securocrats” (a favourite Sinn Fein word for the security forces, the Northern Ireland Office and any other British public servants who annoy them) in order to wreck the peace process met with complete incredulity, since it was all too clear that the British establishment had been pathetically anxious to see a deal.
Not all the republican howls of outrage were bogus. As the IMC pointed out, the IRA had also carried out three other major robberies in 2004, which together yielded £3m. It had suited the governments to ignore those robberies rather than damage the peace process, so there was a genuine bewilderment in the republican leadership that this time they were being held to account. So arrogant had they grown and so invulnerable had they come to feel that they did not realise that this time they had stolen a zero too many, and that Ahern and Blair felt personally betrayed that the operation was being planned while details of the proposed deal were being discussed.
Ahern went so far as to accuse Adams and McGuinness of having known about the robbery in advance and negotiating in bad faith. Republican spokesmen, meanwhile, continued to deny any involvement and repeated ad nauseum that republicans could not be engaged in criminality.
As the various wars of words continued, on Irish television in January, McDowell, the justice minister, forced a senior Sinn Fein spokesman, Mitchel McLaughlin, to clarify what crime meant in the republican lexicon. McDowell took the example of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 whose murder is still remembered because in 1972 the IRA abducted, tortured and shot her on suspicion of being an informer and then hid her body, which was not found for more than 30 years. Did he consider her murder to be a crime, asked McDowell, and, under duress, McLaughlin had to admit he did not.
Further intensive media questioning of republicans began to bring home to the people of the Republic that the IRA believes it is the true government of Ireland and that therefore any members carrying out its orders cannot be criminals. In Adams’ words, “You cannot be a criminal and a republican activist.” The era of what used to be known as constructive ambiguity was over.
McDowell then increased the pressure by stating that Adams, McGuinness and Martin Ferris, a Sinn Fein member of the Irish parliament, were three of the seven-strong IRA Army Council. Ahern, who like Blair has never publicly challenged Adams’ insistence that he was never in the IRA - let alone led it - was slightly nervous and fudged the issue. The three denied the claim but it was out in the open and no amount of fulmination could bury it again.
But all this was overshadowed by the murder at the end of January of Robert McCartney in a 3,000-strong Catholic enclave in Belfast called the Short Strand. This ghetto is ruled - like so many small parts of Northern Ireland, as well as, increasingly, inner cities in the Republic - by a thugocracy. For some perceived disrespect to the local godfather, this father-of-two was viciously knifed, beaten and kicked to death by perhaps 15 members of the IRA, who then organised the destruction of evidence and the intimidation of 70 witnesses.
What the IRA commander who ordered his stabbing did not take into account was that McCartney had five sisters, who with his fiancee and aunt followed in the footsteps of Ann McCabe in the Republic and fearlessly challenged the republican leadership to disown their murderers.
After the murder, at least a third of the people of Short Strand took to the streets in an unparalleled example of people power to protest against the depravity of the gangsters who tyrannise them. The IRA then provoked incredulity around the world by offering to shoot McCartney’s killers: the family turned them down.
The sisters took their case to Washington DC. There, they were received sympathetically by President Bush, as well as the Irish-American Senator Ted Kennedy, who unprecedentedly refused to meet Gerry Adams, also visiting the capital for St Patrick’s Day. Among the prominent Americans who called for the IRA to disband was Sinn Fein’s longtime faithful supporter, New York Congressman Peter King.
Adams (now being compared with Yassir Arafat rather than Nelson Mandela) announced the suspension from Sinn Fein of seven people suspected of involvement with the Short Strand murder, but refused to ask witnesses to go to the police and continued to shield the most senior of the guilty. The IRA said that it had expelled three members. (The satirical website www.portadownnews.com ran a spoof advertisement for Sinn Fein: “Due to increased demand we urgently require LIARS.”)
Today, it is dawning even on such a pair of Panglosses as Blair and Ahern that their joint project is as dead as Monty Python’s parrot. It will take more time for them to accept that it died because they and Clinton were deluded and weak in dealing with the leadership of Sinn Fein, which was also the leadership of the IRA. But until they face the truth about what went wrong in the past, they will be unable to develop a realistic plan for the future.
Meanwhile, the republican leadership - hitherto so cunning as negotiators and so effective as propagandists - is panicking. Its luck has turned, its erstwhile friends are crying treachery (”What kind of eejits [idiots] do people take us for?” asked Ahern) and even the Irish media, most of which for years treated republicans with deference, have turned nasty. Hubris, born of the belief it could get away with anything, has been the downfall of Sinn Fein/IRA.
The simple truth that is emerging, even in the US, is that the IRA, which is inextricably linked with Sinn Fein, has grown into one of the richest and most sophisticated criminal organisations in Europe, with tentacles extending to the US and Colombia. Its ultimate ambition is to take power in the Republic, and to this end it funds a huge army of Sinn Fein activists. It has planted sleepers in politics, the media, the law and business. It is using money obtained by criminal means to buy up legitimate businesses (it is now the biggest pub owner in Ireland) and it is replicating northern ghettoes in some southern inner cities.
Yet Blair, who is terrified of a bomb during his election campaign, and Ahern, who follows his lead, continue to talk to Adams and to bleat about inclusivity and the need to revitalise the peace process. If they refuse to face reality, there is a real danger that should Sinn Fein pretend to split from the IRA, they will go along with another disastrous fiction.
They should listen to the harsh reality as David Adams spells it out. “We conveniently ignored a fundamental principle of the peace process: that paramilitary groups had to fall into line with democratic norms before they could be trusted to wield any measure of civic or political power. Instead, we contorted the rules of democracy to accommodate them.”