"Everything Went Wrong"

How Northern Ireland returned to the brink of civil war

Published July 23, 1996 12:44PM (EDT)

An uneasy calm prevails over Northern Ireland in the wake of the recent spasm of violence surrounding Protestant marches through Catholic neighborhoods.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister John Major, trying to put the peace process back together, met with delegates from political groups aligned with the Protestant paramilitaries. In recent days, they have threatened to call off their own ceasefire in response to the IRA's renewed bombing campaign.

At the end of last week, the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference met to discuss the violence that accompanied the Protestant marches and how the police and the British government handled the affair. The Financial Times reported that government ministers in London and Dublin fear the province is "closer to all-out conflict than for many years."

Is the situation that bad? We spoke with David McKittrick, the Northern Ireland correspondent for The Independent (of London) and the co-author, with Eamonn Mallie, of "The Fight for Peace: The Inside Story of the Irish Peace Process" (1996), published in the United Kingdom by Heinemann.

The American press has all but declared the Northern Ireland peace process dead. Is the situation as grim as it is being painted?

Well, it's about as unpromising an atmosphere as you can imagine. Technically, yes, the parties to the peace process are going to get back together and be around the table again, but the events of the past two weeks were so enormous that the atmosphere, which was never particularly promising anyway, has pretty well frozen up.

The prospects weren't particularly promising even before the violence flared? Why not?

Because in the first place they weren't peace talks, they were, rather, political talks. Sinn Fein wasn't present because of the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire in February. So you had a format where everyone was represented except the republican forces. That was not a promising format.

What sparked the violence was the Protestant marching season. But we've had marching seasons every year for the past century. What went so wrong this time?

I suppose you could say everything went wrong. You had this fundamental clash between the police, on the one hand, who were saying, we don't think you should walk this particular Catholic road this year, and the Orangemen, who said, we've done this for almost 200 years and we're determined to do it again. On top of that you had protests all over the province, which were highly reminiscent of the 1974 Loyalist strike that brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement. And finally, you had the sight of Catholics being intimidated and put out of their homes in parts of Belfast. It has been one of the most tense situations I've ever seen in almost 25 years of reporting on Northern Ireland.

There has been much finger-pointing in the wake of the violence, especially at the British government and the security forces for the way they handled the situation. Is that fair?

The problem was, you couldn't really see a middle way. At first, the security forces said, no, you can't march -- which led to this great wave of Loyalist anger. Then they said, yes, you can, which aroused this fear and fury in the nationalist community. So you had the worst of both worlds. The problem for the British and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) is that if you get the majority Protestant community roused and angry, that's when you can often feel the ground really trembling beneath your feet. The Protestants still have the power to do what they almost did this time -- bring about a complete breakdown of law and order.

In retrospect, could it have been handled better?

One option was not to have banned the Protestant march at all and let it go through right from the start. There would have been a lot of bitterness on the Catholic side, but it would have averted a crisis of this size. Another way would have been for the police to intervene more forcefully at roadblocks, instead of simply standing aside and letting Protestants go through to join the marchers. They could have stopped the Protestant buildup. Clearly none of this happened, and we're left picking up the pieces of what did happen.

If the IRA had kept to the ceasefire, perhaps none of this would have happened. Why did they resume bombing?

You have a deeply divided republican community. On the one hand, there is a lot of support for the kind of peace process that Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein was trying to move along. On the other hand, you had a growing sentiment on the republican side saying that this is all very well, but the peace process simply isn't working and the republican movement is not making progress.

What wasn't working?

The talks. The republican movement kept saying, we want to be at the table, but the British kept coming up with preconditions -- you have to lay down your arms, there have to be elections first, and so forth. There was really just no meeting of minds.

Who was right, who was wrong?

There'll always be those who will say that the whole thing was a trick and wasn't going anywhere. I think it was a golden opportunity that got missed. Had Sinn Fein been allowed to sit at the table and the talks gotten going, I think it would have been difficult for the IRA, or anyone else, to pull the plug.

So it was a misstep by the British?

The feeling throughout the nationalist (Catholic) community is that the British really never got the hang of this thing; that they didn't understand the subtlety of the republicans saying, we're stopping the war but we're not surrendering. The potential offered by that kind of deal was never really appreciated by the British.

Which reinforced the thinking of the "hard men" of the IRA.

Yes. There was always a big disparity between the militaristic IRA line and the Sinn Fein leaders' line. And for a while, beginning in 1994, Sinn Fein and the "political element" of the IRA -- who said, "let's give this (the peace process) a go" -- were in the ascendancy. By the beginning of 1996, the militarists had enough wind in their sails to say, this isn't working, let's try the old way again. At the same time, there is this tremendous anger throughout the nationalist community, not just among republicans, because of what happened with the marches. There's this whole new pan-nationalist structure emerging, from John Hume (of the moderate Social Democratic Labor Party) and Gerry Adams to Irish parties in the south.

After the IRA bombings at Canary Wharf and in Manchester, Adams was looking very bad. Has his stature improved?

After the IRA attacks in Britain, he certainly looked like somebody on the way out. The surprise has been the way he has been almost entirely rehabilitated within the course of a single week. Irish government ministers who were fiercely opposed to Gerry Adams now publicly praise him for his appeals for calm and restraint. His performance is seen as far superior to that of (Unionist party leader) David Trimble.

Who actually joined the Orange marches.

Trimble's defenders say he was a force for moderation because he reined in the extremists and helped keep order. Others would say this was a man who helped create the mob and then followed it. And when you do that in Northern Ireland you can be pretty sure the outcome will not be peaceful.

Is there anything that the British government can do, or is likely to do, to improve the situation?

I think the political well has been poisoned for some time to come. The talks will obviously be kept ticking over, but I think nobody really believes that there's going to be anything quick or substantial coming out of them.

Clinton staked a fair amount of his foreign policy chips on the peace process. Former Sen. George Mitchell is chairing the talks. Is there anything the U.S. government could or might do in the next few weeks or months?

The Americans, like the British and the Irish, will be trying to re-establish the primacy of politics, to say that political action is the best way ahead. But none of them have figured out how. There is still this sense of shock and trauma. Lots of internal debates have to be worked through. It's an appalling thing to say, but maybe the IRA was right to argue that Northern Ireland's state was unreformable and that no peace process can work.

So, more war?

There is, certainly, a horrible feeling of waiting, that there could be another IRA attack at any stage. In previous times, when hard-line feelings run through the republican community, the IRA has cashed in with more bomb attacks. The ground has shifted so much that getting back within normal political parameters will be a real struggle, I think.

Now the Protestant paramilitaries are threatening to get back into the fray.

It's a distinct possibility, and it's another tremendous worry. One of the silver linings has been that we haven't seen a full-blown war of the paramilitaries. But if the IRA does one of its "spectaculars," then it wouldn't be a surprise to see Loyalist retaliation. There's an awful lot of fear that it's going to get much worse before it gets better. The sheer underlying instability of the past couple of weeks -- and the loss of confidence in the security forces -- is something that people won't readily forget. Some people say we've gone right back to the 1920s.

Are "The Troubles" as bad as they ever were? Join the discussion in Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Slather away

"It is like an atomic bomb we didn't mean to invent. We were just looking for a better margarine. We never thought it would be that big."

-- Juka Maki, deputy chief executive of Raisio Group, a Finnish food manufacturer that can't keep up with consumer demand for Benecol, a new margarine that supposedly lowers cholesterol. (From "Village in Finland Faces a Gold Rush Fed by Margarine," in Tuesday's New York Times).

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

MORE FROM Andrew Ross

Related Topics ------------------------------------------