Northern Ireland: A Movement Going Nowhere Fast

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The IRA's recent withdrawal of their offer to put their arms 'beyond use' might have been expected to cause widespread panic about the future of the peace process. Yet after some initial alarm, there is a feeling of 'business as usual' or rather a lack of business.

All the initial enthusiasm for the peace process has waned and been replaced by a frustrating impasse. There is no doubt that the various shades of Ulster Unionists, all too often assisted by the acquiescence of the British government, have been mainly responsible for this.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, while apparently in favour of the process, continually placed obstacles and barriers to progress. As Sinn Fein and the IRA either conformed or attempted to compromise in the face of their intransigence, Trimble kept inventing new barriers and demands.

In the end Trimble's lukewarm support for the process backfired on him. As a result, much of the electorate abandoned this drip-by-drip opposition to the process and instead embraced the wholehearted opposition of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP's 'peace terms' included public humiliation and abject defeat for the IRA. They were 'criminals' who would have to grovel about their past before Sinn Fein would be allowed into government. This was a step too far even for a Republican leadership that has bent over backwards to make the process work. Hence the Unionists are now demanding a restoration of the Assembly, but with Sinn Fein excluded. Given that Sinn Fein now enjoys the majority of the Nationalist vote, this is simply unworkable.

All of which leaves the situation at a standstill. It used to be said during one period of the 'troubles' that the British government would regard their policy as successful if they could achieve 'an acceptable level of violence'. Now it would appear there is an acceptable level of stalemate: a process going nowhere, but with an absence of armed struggle.

This may be acceptable to the two governments, and even elements of Unionism, but for Sinn Fein it is not good news. The Adams/McGuinness leadership went to enormous lengths to persuade Republicans that this would allow them into the corridors of power and be an important stepping-stone to the dream of a united Ireland.

Despite dropping 'abstention from partitionist parliaments', calling a ceasefire, decommissioning weapons, acknowledging the end of the armed struggle, and effectively admitting a united Ireland can only come with the consent of the Northern population, Sinn Fein finds itself locked out of office. There is a feeling that this is a movement which has had its teeth extracted. A few years ago an announcement by the IRA that it was withdrawing its offer to put arms beyond use would have sent shivers down the spine of the British and Irish political establishments and created hysteria in the media. Now, however, the statement was greeted with complacent scepticism. 'Throwing the dummy out of the pram' was a phrase that was frequently used by government spokespeople.

There is an ironic twist to this response. It must be exasperating for Sinn Fein that the reason they are constantly being given for progress being blocked is that they still have guns they might use despite their assurances they won't. Then when they implicitly state they might use them after all, nobody believes or feels threatened by them.

Security experts believe that the IRA has neither the political will nor desire to return to armed struggle. Certainly a guerrilla army that has stood down, gone public, lost its anonymity, and enjoyed a life free of the stresses of possible death or arrest cannot easily wind itself back up again. It is one thing to give your life for the great dream of a united Ireland, another altogether so that Gerry Adams can be deputy leader to Ian Paisley's first minister.

At the same time further difficulties are created. There has been much publicity about the record-breaking bank robbery which the IRA and Sinn Fein deny vehemently was carried out by the Republican movement. The long history of dirty tricks by police in the region and the utter uselessness of the intelligence agencies vis-à-vis Iraq, should make us suspicious that both governments and all senior security figures seem supremely confident that this was an IRA operation.

As the fuss grows over the issue, and apparently incriminating evidence emerges, it is clear that those who are hostile to the process will seize on this as a reason to exclude Sinn Fein, and that both governments will find it hard to ignore demands for some form of sanction against them.

However, this in and of itself is unlikely to damage their electoral support, at least in the North where it is easy to see how many of their supporters would regard this as quite a coup. A record-breaking bank robbery in which no one was hurt is unlikely to do them much damage on their own side.

The same cannot be said for the recent killing of Robert McCartney in a West Belfast pub. The death of McCartney followed a bar room brawl, in which local Republicans were said to have been prominent. This has caused much bad feeling in a traditionally Republican stronghold.

It is seen by many as the culmination of increasingly heavy-handed behaviour by Republicans. A movement that is no longer waging war on the British or security forces but is waging one on sections of its own community could very quickly become unpopular. Yet, electorally, Sinn Fein's hopes are riding high. They are expected to deal even greater blows to the Nationalist rivals, the SDLP, at the next British general election and polls indicate growing support in the South.

But how this can be maintained against a stalled peace process must be a source of real worry to their leadership. Electoral success may be able to buy time but it will not break the deadlock that the peace process is in. Unionist intransigence and British government compliance are making that breakthrough seem increasingly out of reach.