The talks chaired by leading US diplomat Richard Haass may have been sunk like a modern day Titanic, but his warning to Irish parties about a new wave of violence must be taken seriously by all sides. The instability of the peace process is reaching a stage where it mirrors the scene from the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster, Independence Day, where Jeff Goldblum predicts the alien attack with the words: “Time’s up!”
Haass’ warning also reminded me of a fund-raising coffee morning for the rapidly dwindling Ulster Unionist Party which I attended in the late 1990s in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. A senior UUP official at that event told ne he expected the fledgling peace process to last another 10 to 15 years before the conflict” kicked off’ again. Given that UUP man’s warning, is time now up for the peace process?
If the conflict does erupt again – and the trends of history suggest it will – the spark which lit the flames will be the so-called “amnesty letters” to the republican “On The Runs”, or OTRs.
More than 180 republicans, suspected of being involved in terrorists activities, received letters informing them they were no longer sought for questioning in the UK. Unionists dubbed these letters “Get out of jail free” cards.
However, while many Unionists – and many republicans – knew that to have a permanent peace, there would have to be compromises by all sides, the pro-Union community did not think republicans would gain so many benefits from that process. Unionism has had to stomach the sight of Sinn Fein as a junior partner in a devolved Stormont government along with the now more liberal Democratic Unionists. Many families of the Troubles’ 3,500 victims feel they will never have justice for their dead loved ones.
The bitter pill which many are having to swallow in Ireland is that the Irish and British governments are indulging in a massive dose of “Forget the past, let’s move on”. Equally many in Ireland will not, and cannot, forget the past. The OTR letters have fostered the suspicion in Unionist and loyalist minds that an English Government at Westminster is not to be trusted.
As far as certain sections of the English political establishment are concerned, Ireland is done and dusted – at last for the time being. Those who hold that view are misreading their history. Peace in Ireland comes in phases, and the latest is nearing its conclusion. Just read the pattern: 1641 rebellion; 1688 revolution; 1798 United Irishmen; 1840s Fenian movement; 1916 Easter Rising; 1919 War of Independence; 1921 Irish Civil War; 1940 secret deal with Hitler; 1956 Border campaign; 1968 The Troubles.
The English establishment has made a major error of judgement – that the Unionist community will always remain “loyal” to a Westminster government.
During the peace process, two stages unfolded. First, as republican terror groups had killed the most people, they would require the biggest “sweeteners” to bring then into the democratic process. Second, the establishment misjudged the inability of the badly split Unionist parties to deliver concessions, especially for an increasingly disgruntled Protestant working class.
In the 16 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the loyalist working class has watched as Sinn Fein reaped massive financial benefits for the Catholic working class.
Sinn Fein has been able to achieve this while penetrating the Catholic middle class heartlands of the SDLP. When the DUP pulled the same poll stunt with the UUP’s traditional Protestant middle -lass supporters, the DUP was seen as ditching the loyalist working class. The end result is a loyalist working class demanding civil rights, just as the Catholic community did in 1968 before the Civil Rights Movement was hijacked by the Provisional IRA.
With elections looming in May, the DUP is frantically trying to re-engage with working-class Protestants. Loyalist voter apathy could see seats in traditionally safe pro-Union areas fall to republican or nationalist candidates as the loyalist community loses faith in the ballot box. In this scenario, it could be loyalist dissidents – not republicans – who begin the latest bloody phase of Ireland’s troubled history. Haass’ warning is ignored at London and Dublin’s peril.