This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave on November 5 from a panel discussion at the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool, on Ten Years After the Agreement.
Last week, a seminar I was invited to participate in with police officers was cancelled because the security risk was too great. The police are waiting for an attack. The chief constable says that dissident groups are competing to be the first to kill a police officer. Of course the optimism of the peace process predicts that such groups can gain no traction within Northern Ireland society now. That is a presumption that many are eager to test. The popular understanding is that such groups cannot function because they cannot achieve popular support of the kind that the Provisional IRA had. But the IRA had means of contriving popular support and had an enemy which, at the beginning, wasn’t alert to the need to prevent that.
The Provisionals were never able to rally popular support around an armed struggle for a united Ireland.
But they were able to mobilise popular support and sympathy around other issues, most notably, of course, the hunger strikes.
Has Northern Irish society the resources to withstand growing paramilitarism?
To do that it must have assimilated lessons from the past.
Never to give the propaganda advantage to the insurgent group through your own ill considered military action.
Not to allow horrific deadlocks like the Hunger strikes or the Drumcree stand off to develop.
Always to make the case for a fair and balanced society. The voice of the state in the early Troubles was smug and derisive.
So how well are we doing?
We often hear people saying, if you had told me 10 years ago that one day the IRA and the Democratic Unionist party would be sharing power in Belfast, I would have laughed at you. Well there is just so long that a cliche like that can continue to pertain.
Actually what they expected 10 years ago was that, within a year, the four major parties in Northern Ireland would be governing a peaceful demilitarised society. That was the promise of that day in 1998 when the agreement was made. If there was a miracle it was then; there have been precious few miracles since. There has, instead, been conflict by other means, a protracted peace process in which parties sought to undermine and wrongfoot each other, in which the peace process itself was played to sectarian advantage until the minority, that is more extreme, parties in each community took the ascendant, having thrived on deadlock.
Well, now they are in power, and they continue to needle each other. Sinn Fein boycotts the executive in protest against the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to allow the devolution of policing and justice. Neither side, however, wants to crash the devolved assembly so, having created a deadlock they work to resolve it. And this becomes evidence of their ultimate good intentions towards each other.
We are still in a phase in which faith is retained only through benign readings of the manner in which problems are resolved, when those problems are created for each other by the parties themselves.
The most recent example is the management of a homecoming parade from the Royal Irish Regiment and the Sinn Fein protest against it on Sunday last.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Shaun Woodward, and much of the media, invites us to read that parade as evidence of enormous progress, yet peace was maintained only with difficulty and only with the co-operation of the leaders of three and possibly four paramilitary factions.
Sinn Fein had first organised a protest march against the RIR homecoming, along a route which would have brought them perilously close to loyalist protesters from the Shankill Road and dissident republican groups bussed in from across Northern Ireland. Not only had they played a tired old sectarian card, they had planned their own parade in a manner which put them in grave danger. When Gerry Kelly announced last Thursday that Sinn Fein was changing its route, he presented it as an act of generosity and reconciliation. That change was essential to the security need that paramilitary organisations be kept separate from each other.
There was no violence on the day because all police leave was cancelled so that enormous manpower could be brought to the task of keeping factions apart. Sinn Fein’s parade was marshalled by senior members of the IRA. Loyalist protesters, including about a thousand members of the UDA, were held in check by the UDA leadership. Dissident republicans marched to a police barrier, made a speech to the effect that they would not fight today but would at another time.
So, you can marvel at the fact that paramilitary leaders can marshal thousands of people and keep them under control, and read that as evidence of a mature and stable post conflict society. Or you can take last Sunday as a reminder that there is still dangerous sectarian anger in the air.
We live still with the politics of sectarian needling and, it seems, the best that we can hope for is that parties will draw limits to how far they will go in needling the other side.
We have a mandatory coalition in government in Northern Ireland but relations between the two larger parties are tetchy.
The first minister Peter Robinson is irascible by nature. He has damaged his own standing by angry threats which he has failed to follow through with. He has a problem similar to that which bedevilled David Trimble. Senior members of his party appear to be signalling that they would oppose compromises with Sinn Fein.
Similarly, there is a worry that the leadership of Sinn Fein is no longer coherent. Gerry Adams has kept himself off the executive yet he has exclusive responsibility for appointing Sinn Fein ministers. One of those ministers, Catriona Ruane the education minister, is conspicuously inept and unpopular, yet the first and deputy first ministers have no power to remove her. The suspicion grows that Adams enjoys the havoc that she reeks.
Another of the cliches about Northern Ireland is that it is proof of progress that old enemies are arguing now about education and health. Well it isn’t. It feels much as the peace process did, like conflict by other means, conducted on a gamble that the party which most annoys the other side will reap the greater number of votes on its own side.
In this context there are two great dangers we have to be alert to. The first is simply that by treating the political settlement as a sectarian contest, Sinn Fein and the DUP risk wrecking it. For now, they may be like boxers pulling their punches. But accidents can happen. The politics of brinkmanship may one day fail, and parties that have been pampered with the illusion that there is always a solution and the compromise and a face saver available, may one day find that there isn’t.
The other danger is that violence will return. The security threat from dissident republicans is currently high. We have to assume that Sinn Fein and the DUP have already agreed on how to cope with the aftermath of a successful attack., that on that day Peter Robinson will confront those to the right of him who would make that grounds for crashing the deal and that Gerry Adams will stand firm beside the PSNI and endorse strong measures against dissident republicans.
We may have to see Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness walk together in a police funeral, preferably carrying the coffin.
On that day, the survival of the agreement may depend on both the DUP and Sinn Fein displaying a consideration for the problems of the other that has so far eluded them.