Monday, 29 January 2007

On the Likelihood of a Breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Efforts to broker agreement among political parties in the North are stumbling inexorably towards collapse and all things considered, this need not necessarily be the worst possible outcome.

In truth any agreement that is hammered out would only serve, at the present time, to paper over cracks. Most likely it would amount to a re-run of the previous occasion when the Assembly and Executive was functioning. Constant injections of political support from one or other or both of the two government would be required to keep the it all propped up. The main political forces on the nationalist side see in it anyway merely a stepping stone towards some form of 'united Ireland' - precisely what form deliberately being left vague for the time being. But equally unionist have reached a point where they just cannot bring themselves to do business with Sinn Féin and this clouds their entire political agenda. Paradoxically this is also the reason why their political interests would now best be served within an all-Ireland framework. At least within such a framework they could create a buffer between themselves and republicans. This option is no longer easily available within a six-county or ‘Northern Ireland’ context.

The late Charles Haughey controversially described Northern Ireland as a ‘failed political entity‘. He was probably only echoing the warning of a unionist leader of an earlier era, the Dubliner, Edward Carson who anticipated such an outcome when he turned down overtures to become Prime Minister when Northern Ireland was created. Partition was as much a matter of historical compromise for unionism as it was for Irish nationalism. Exactly where unionist thinking lies isn't always easy to gauge but it's surely apparent to them that their most likely (and reliable) allies in reducing the role and marginalising the influence of Sinn Féin lie across the border and not across the sea. Certainly this is the impression one gets from the ease with which unionist politicians engage and exchange banter with their southern counterparts - Ian Paisley Jnr recent appearance on RTÉ’s Questions and Answers for example.

With strand one of the Good Friday Agreement being put on ice, the public spotlight moving away from the North and relieved of the pressure to reach a settlement, political leaders of the two main traditions will be able to properly engage in dialogue with their respective constituencies on issues like policing, power-sharing etc. In the meantime an opportunity will be opened up to explore other areas of the Good Friday Agreement which have not to date received the same level of (public) attention - what the agreement itself refers to as the ‘totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands’ for example. It is possible that by developing new initiatives in these areas, a momentum could be created to return to the question of government in Northern Ireland at a later date. However it may also prove to be the case that the time for this has passed for reasons already outlined. Cross-border co-operation envisaged in strand two of the agreement may end up superseding those aspects of the agreement outlined in strand one.

The absence of democratic institutions governing Northern Ireland will not of itself lead to a descent back into the violence and anarchy of the past but neither can this be ruled out. Certain measures could be taken now in anticipation of such a scenario. This could entail the Irish government seeking a binding commitment that any future peace-keeping intervention in the North would have an Irish input and dimension. The Irish defence forces could assume responsibilities in areas and communities of the north where their presence would be welcomed over the presence of a British occupying power which would only serve to inflame.

23rd January, 2007

A version of this post was published as a 'Letter to the Editor' in the Irish Examiner newspaper of 31st January, 2007.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2007

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