Northern Ireland’s war of words
Why the wording of an IRA statement brought political life to a standstill.
The IRA has been accused of causing a stalemate in Northern Ireland – not by planting a bomb or shooting a soldier, but by failing to clarify the wording of a recent statement. It used to be political and military stand-offs over big issues that caused crises in Northern Ireland. Now it seems that words and phrases are enough to bring the state to a standstill.
On 13 April, in response to pressure from the British and Irish governments, the IRA issued a statement on its commitment to the peace process. The aim was to get Northern Ireland moving again, following the suspension of the devolved assembly in October 2002 amid allegations of an IRA spy ring at the heart of Stormont. Although the IRA statement made clear its full commitment to peaceful means and its desire to ‘see the [peace process] succeed’, British and Irish officials were unimpressed with the wording and called for clarification (1).
For the British, the problem with the statement was that, while it ‘represented progress’, it didn’t contain the words ‘the war is over’ (2). So on 15 April, the IRA offered clarification, in a private note sent to the British and Irish governments – but according to a British spokesman, there remained outstanding issues in relation to the wording. Consequently, British and Irish officials have held back from publishing a joint blueprint on Northern Ireland’s future.
Now, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has made a statement aimed at clarifying the IRA statement. ‘The IRA statement is a statement of completely peaceful intent’, says Adams. ‘Its logic is that there should be no activities inconsistent with this.’ But….British and Unionist officials think the word ‘should’ in Adams’ statement should have been ‘will’, which would have turned the promise that IRA actions ‘should not happen’ into ‘will not happen’. As BBC News reports, ‘There now seems to be just one word standing between republicans and the British….’ (3).
According to one report, this toing and froing over the IRA’s wording has left Northern Ireland ‘hanging in the balance’ (4). Some British officials apparently want to cancel the assembly elections, due to take place at the end of May, until the deadlock over the statement has been resolved.
What’s going on? How can, in the words of one Irish paper, ‘the elusive prize of permanent peace and stability…hang on a single word’? The clarification crisis over the IRA statement is a logical conclusion of the peace process – a process that is less about resolving Northern Ireland’s political questions than containing them, less about finding a political solution than ‘accommodating difference’. In the depoliticised New Northern Ireland, symbolic gesture is all, and watching your language has taken the place of political debate.
Any serious observer of Northern Irish affairs knows that the IRA’s ‘war is over’. After 25 years of fighting against the British presence in Ireland, the IRA declared a ‘a complete cessation of military operations’ in August 1994.
It broke its ceasefire in February 1996, with a massive bomb attack on Canary Wharf in London. But even the shortlived bombing campaign that followed looked less a re-declaration of war than an expression of frustration with the pace of the peace process. During its resumption of violence, the IRA said it remained committed to finding ‘an inclusive negotiated settlement’ (5). The breaking of the ceasefire was a military attempt to offset the perceived humiliation brought about by some of the republican movement’s sweeping political concessions, rather than a new war to get ‘Brits out’. The resumed campaign fizzled into a second ceasefire in July 1997.
Many point to the fact that the IRA still carries out punishment beatings in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland as evidence that it is still a threat. Yet the IRA’s transformation into a local policing outfit shows that, as a guerrilla army that threatens war, it is a spent force. It is common in post-conflict situations for armed groups to turn inwards. In the absence of the broader political and military objectives that defined the conflict, they often end up policing their own.
Over and above the IRA’s sporadic military forays since 1994, the Irish republican movement no longer fundamentally objects to British interference in Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, the true heirs of the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic, whose aim was to get British forces out of the Six Counties. Now republicans effectively accept their position as just another political party representing Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in the peace process. Far from going back to war to get Britain out of Ireland, republicans now demand more British engagement, calling on the British government to ‘face up to its responsibilities’ in finding a solution in Ireland (6).
If everything points to the IRA’s war being over, why has Northern Ireland come to a standstill over the IRA’s failure to declare that its war is over? This is the peace process in action, where words and presentation take precedence over conviction and action. Having transformed Northern Ireland’s conflict from a political one over sovereignty into a cultural squabble over respect for identities, the peace process has put the symbolic centre stage. Or, as a BBC reporter put it, in contrast to the modern mantra ‘content is king’, in Northern Ireland’s peace process ‘clarity is king’ (7).
And as recent events show, depoliticising the conflict has not led to a new era of peace and cooperation. Rather, the institutionalisation of difference and identity threatens to heighten tensions and increase the potential for endless squabbling.
The aim of the peace process was never to find the definitive solution to the Irish conflict. Indeed, it is founded on the idea that there is no definitive solution. It is now accepted across the board that the real problem in Northern Ireland is the existence of two distinct identities – nationalism and Unionism – both of which are ‘worthy of respect’, but which have been unable to live peacefully side-by-side.
According to the perceived wisdom, the reason nationalism and Unionism failed to co-exist was that each sought a ‘one-identity’, winner-takes-all solution. The nationalists wanted a united Ireland in which the Unionist identity would be lost, while the Unionists wanted to continue dominating their Six-County statelet, which had proved so disastrous for nationalists.
The peace process rewrote the 25-year conflict in Northern Ireland. What was in truth a national struggle between the Irish Republican Army and British and Unionist forces – between those who sought an independent united Ireland and those who wanted to keep British dominion over the North – is now talked about as if it were an inter-communal conflict, between two identities that didn’t get on. When Northern Ireland’s problems are viewed in this way, the role of the peace process becomes, not opting for one of those nasty old-fashioned solutions, but managing relations between the distinct identities.
This is why it is a peace process, because it is a permanent thing, an ongoing process of keeping and managing the peace. The peace process is not about moving towards a definable endpoint, but about making sure that each side’s voice is heard and respected at all times.
All the declarations and institutions of the peace process have emphasised moving away from ‘solutions’ towards ‘inclusivist agendas’ in which both traditions are ‘accommodated’. The partition treaty of 1921 redrew the map of Ireland and imposed, for good or ill, what the then British government considered to be a solution to the historic conflict between Irish nationalism and British imperialism. By contrast, today’s peace process has only given rise to declarations, frameworks and assemblies, in which solution-talk is actively frowned upon.
The original document of the peace process was the 1993 Downing Street declaration, issued by then British prime minister John Major and then Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds. Its main proposal was to ‘embrace the two traditions’. The Framework Document of 1995 did what its title suggested – proposing a framework for managing conflict rather than a solution for bringing conflict to an end and kickstarting a new politics.
Even the assembly initiated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was not about bringing the peace process to a conclusion and getting on with normal politics. Instead of being a traditional parliamentary chamber where political issues are resolved, the assembly has largely been a glorified talking shop. Everyone elected to the assembly must declare whether they are ‘nationalist, Unionist or other’, so that the assembly can continue the job of respecting both identities. And one of its main aims is to reach ‘sufficiency of consensus’ on every issue, to show that both traditions in Northern Ireland (and all the other little ones) agree on every course of action.
The proceedings at the assembly are not treaty negotiations or even political debates, but ‘all-party talks’. The role of the assembly is simply to get the two identities talking – endlessly. It is the act of talking that is seen as important, rather than the question of what the talking might lead to.
It is in this climate that something like the wording of an IRA statement can assume such headline-grabbing importance. The peace process has emptied Northern Ireland’s clash of its political content, making it into a clash of identities that has to be managed forever. And with this emphasis on reassuring both traditions of their worth, the peace process makes gestures into the substance of political life. All sides have constantly to reaffirm their commitment to the peace process and their respect for the other identity, and the more publicly and clearly they do that, the better.
That is why we have the spectacle of British officials spending two weeks trying to get the IRA to reword and clarify a statement – in order to, as British officials put it, ‘reassure Unionists’. During the Troubles, the IRA issued statements to take responsibility for and to justify political and military actions. Now the statements themselves are seen as being the stuff of politics, the apparent driving force to ‘move things along’.
Where do the people of Northern Ireland stand in relation to all this? Recent events confirm that the nationalist and Unionist communities have been disenfranchised from political life, left outside while the political parties get on with the process of peace. According to Irish Times writer Suzanne Breen: ‘Everyone up here is disillusioned. Even the staunchest supporters of the Belfast Agreement have grown weary of the endless cycle of crises and crux negotiations…. In pubs, taxi depots, and cafes, in-depth analysis focuses on the race for the English Premiership, not that for the peace deal. The strategies of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger arouse much more interest than those of Gerry Adams and David Trimble.’ (8)
Just 15 years ago, people in Northern Ireland were more politically motivated and organised than anywhere else in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Nationalists and Unionists were involved in mass movements, whether dedicated to highlighting British repression in Ireland or to defending the Union with Britain. Now, the people ponder football while their leaders ponder peace. And who can blame them? The Premiership is infinitely more interesting than the ins and outs of the peace process.
The peace process is deeply undemocratic. With the rarefied emphasis on rising above old-fashioned political squabbles, the politicians and officials driving the process view the people of Northern Ireland suspiciously. Some believe that the people’s base instincts could even throw the peace process off course. Officials worry that if Northern Ireland’s politicians, currently being weaned off their desires for a single-identity solution, are allowed too much contact with the people, it might re-ignite their old political posturings, where they will attempt to win votes by appealing to the masses’ presumed desires for old-fashioned solutions.
That is why some are proposing that the assembly elections be cancelled until the controversy over the IRA’s statement has been sorted. After all, how can politicians go to the people when there is an issue that remains unresolved, open and up for question? In the peace process, the role of the people is to rubber-stamp developments, not to debate them and make decisions.
Amid the peace process’s war of words over nothing, politics and democracy are being killed off.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
(1) IRA statement unclear, Sky News, 14 April 2003
(2) IRA statement unclear, Sky News, 14 April 2003
(3) Adams move ‘muddies the waters’, BBC News, 28 April 2003
(4) IRA told to clarify crucial statement, Reuters, 14 April 2003
(5) Irish Republican Army Statement Ending Ceasefire, 9 February 1996
(6) See Sinn Fein shine spotlight on Human Rights and Equality during the course of the negotiations, Sinn Fein press release, 28 February 2003
(7) Adams move ‘muddies the waters’, BBC News, 28 April 2003
(8) Indifference to peace process on the streets, Suzanne Breen, Irish Times, 25 April 2003
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