05 February 2006

No settlement in the North for at least five years

Sunday Business Post

By Vincent Browne
05 February 2006

No reinstatement of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, no agreement on policing, continuing involvement by paramilitaries in criminality and sporadic violence.

But in the long run it won’t matter, for the trajectory of events in the North was set more than 12 years ago. Ultimately, there will be an accommodation, if not communal reconciliation - or rather conciliation.

Tony Blair will be long gone from the political scene. Bertie Ahern may still be around, but that says little about any timeframe, for he may be around as Taoiseach for another decade or so, even if he doesn’t want to be. Ian Paisley will hardly be around and we can’t say about Gerry Adams because some day, one of his former - or even present - comrades may conclude he has subverted the struggle for Irish freedom.

It would be preferable if there were a ‘settlement’ this year - a reinstatement of the power-sharing institutions and the all-Ireland bodies, acceptance by Sinn Fein of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), an end to exiling, intelligence-gathering and criminality. But it won’t happen this year, nor next, nor realistically for many years - for two reasons.

The first and less important reason is because it will take time for the IRA to disengage from all that it did best for so many years. The situation has been transformed by the ending of the IRA murder campaign.

But an organisation engaged for nearly 30 years in what it considered a ‘‘war’’ against ‘‘occupation’’ - which, it believed, gave it licence to do almost anything - cannot change its nature, culture and way of doing things in a short few years.

This is all the more true when that organisation has been disoriented by conflicting signals from its own leadership - at one time suggesting that the ending of terrorism was merely a short-term tactic to gain political advantage, and at another time suggesting that the raison d’etre of the organisation was now no more.

The Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) put it nicely in the report it issued a few days ago: ‘‘Like an oil tanker, the organization will take a while to turn completely and there is likely to be added turbulence in the wash as it does so.”

It said the IRA was still engaged in ‘‘intelligence-gathering’’ and had ‘‘no present intention of doing otherwise’’. It said this was authorised by the leadership, including some very senior members, but that this intelligence gathering was predominantly ‘‘directed towards supporting the political strategy’’.

It is hard to believe this isn’t true, since members of the organisation associated with Sinn Fein TD Aongus O Snodaigh were found to be gathering in format ion in the Republic on the personal movements and associations of ministers and TDs.

The point of all this is difficult to ascertain. If it was the intention to kill certain persons, then information on their movements would be useful, but, otherwise, what is the point? Blackmail? But how, plausibly, could Sinn Fein engage in that without being caught and shamed? Maybe it’s a case of idle hands needing something to do.

The anxiety is that it signals an intention to revert to ‘‘war’’ at some stage - or at least to leave that option open. But this same IMC report said repeatedly that the movement has eschewed the option of reverting to terrorism.

The criminality stuff is hardly surprising. The republican movement, it is said, has loads of cash that it wants to launder. This isn’t harmless. It is unacceptable that any political organisation would have access to massive financial resources to bias the political system in its favour. For the same reason, it is unacceptable that any political party would have access to private cash (such as cash obtained from wealthy donors) to bias the political system in its favour.

But I wonder about the reality of this Provo cash hoard. I have known several of the IRA leadership over the last 35 years - Sean McStiofain, David O’Connell, Joe Cahill, Seamus Twomey and Gerry Adams - and one thing that always struck me about them was how impecunious they were.

They had no personal cash. They lived frugal lives. Often their families were impoverished. So how is it that, if the Provos had such access to such huge financial resources, they would not or could not afford their leaders even a modest income - especially since, if the propaganda is to be believed, these men ran the republican movement autocratically?

The tanker will take some time to turn - even though it has been turning for at least 12 years - and the wash in the wake will continue to cause turbulence for a while, postponing, for instance, Sinn Fein’s involvement in the Police Authority and general acceptance of the PSNI. But it will happen.

The second, and by far more crucial, reason why there will not be a ‘settlement’ for years is because the unionist community is not ready.

Part of this unreadiness is because of a deep-rooted unwillingness to share power with Catholics, but I believe this is a minor factor now. After all, the DUP now has no compunction about sharing power with the SDLP - remember Paisley’s opposition to the Sunningdale Unionist SDLP power-sharing arrangement in 1974 - and it has no compunction in coming to Dublin and lobbying Bertie Ahern to support its agenda.

A substantial reason for unionist opposition to sharing power with republicans derives from the memory of the murder campaign of republicans against their community over the years 1970 to 1994.

The IRA murdered over half the people killed in the North during the ‘Troubles’ - more than 1,500 people. Many of these people were murdered in the most gruesome circumstances, either being blown to bits by IRA bombs or being assassinated, often in front of their families.

What was done by the IRA was an abomination and it is unrealistic to expect the representatives of the community that was the main victim of those abominations to be ready so soon to share power in government with those they regard - reasonably - as the persons responsible.

The unionists failed to see how they were the main beneficiaries of the Good Friday Agreement, the crucial part of which required nationalists on the island of Ireland to abandon nationalism so that the constitutional future of the North would be determined, not by the people of the island as a whole (the nationalist position), but by the people of the North (the unionist position).

Unionists have failed to see generally how the situation has been transformed to their advantage, and the reason for this is mistrust of those who conducted a campaign of murder against them for 34 years.

It will indeed take a long time for that tanker to turn. * sbpost@iol.ie

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