What made peace possible in Ireland?

A vision of prosperity and inclusion, for North and South, moved both sides beyond violence.


Margaret SpillaneBruce Shapiro
December 6, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

It was the end of a workday at the chief port on Ireland's southern coast. People were moving nimbly through the light rain, going about their business, hardly sparing a glance for the military spectacle they had to step around on the sidewalk: Eight Irish soldiers with their semiautomatics at the ready.

This was closing time at the Cobh bank, a routine handover of the office cash-box common to businesses the world over. But on this particular occasion, the familiar Securicor transport van had arrived amid a phalanx of Land Rovers from which those soldiers piled out. After the van picked up its cargo, the whole parade moved a half-block down the street and repeated its performance at Cobh's small post-office on the town's waterfront, before zooming out of town under police escort.

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At the opposite corner of the island and across the border in Northern Ireland, TV crews from all over the globe were this day unloading their own heavy artillery, preparing to broadcast the momentous event initiated at midnight Thursday: Ulster's first power-sharing government, marking the presumed end of the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. Seated side by side at Belfast's Stormont Castle Thursday were representatives of Sinn Fein, the electoral ally of the Irish Republican Army, and Protestant Unionists to whom Sinn Fein and the nationalist aspirations of Northern Ireland's Catholics have generally been anathema.

Cobh, in the Irish Republic, is as geographically remote from British-controlled Belfast as any city on the island. But the high-firepower escort for Cobh's cash boxes was a guarantor for those dramatic events in the North. Rumors were rife that a small faction of dissident Republicans hoped to wreck the talks with some daring act of violence on either side of the border. That cash box-protection-squad was called out to preempt any action which might cause tempers in Belfast to explode and inspire any player to walk away from the table.

In the annals of Irish diplomacy, guarding Cobh's cash box will be a minor footnote. Yet the fact that Ulster's new government took office Thursday was largely attributable to an accumulation of such unheralded gestures on both sides of the border.

It is part of what Inez McCormack in Belfast calls "the unheard part of the peace process." McCormack, president of Unison, the province's union of health care workers, was one of a handful of Irish and Irish-American labor, business and political leaders who helped broker the first cautious approaches between Northern Ireland's bitterly contending factions in 1993. At the time, any settlement of the Troubles seemed almost unimaginably remote: Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams was banned from British airwaves and denied a U.S. visa; the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest Protestant party, would not sit in the same room with Sinn Fein, let alone contemplate participation in a joint government.

Now, she watched the run-up to Thursday's government handover with what she describes as "a sense of disbelief -- and I don't mean that in a bad way." This salubrious astonishment even from so deeply engaged a political player is understandable. While those soldiers went on quiet alert in the Irish Republic in the South, open anxiety had mounted in Belfast last Saturday as Ulster Unionists debated for hours whether to take the final leap.

Unionist leader David Trimble finally won a narrow majority for the new government -- in which he holds the office of first minister alongside Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the Catholic-nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party -- by promising to resign if the IRA does not make disarmament progress by February. Trimble was praised in some quarters for his bravery -- putting his career on the line for the new government. Yet he also created a timetable and a demand far outside the agreement negotiated for months by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

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"If that vote were not conditional, there probably would be euphoria," says McCormack. "But even so, the sense of a moment of transformation is still there. While the media has focused on that February deadline, it is just as important that there are no demonstrations in the streets saying shut down the new government. Things will never be the same again."

The struggles of Northern Ireland, a British province of just 1.5 million, may seem old news compared with, say, world trade talks and mass protest in Seattle. But in a curious way, the contradictions of the entire island of Ireland -- the roaring Celtic Tiger economy in the South adjoining a high-unemployment North economically dependent upon Britain; a Protestant-majority British province whose Catholic minority identifies itself with the Republic across the border -- are a microcosm of some of the most pressing issues of inequality and conflict in the global-economy era.

The story of Northern Ireland's peace deal, the so-called "Good Friday Accords" negotiated by Mitchell, has been portrayed in the United States as the dance of rival Protestant and Catholic leaders -- particularly, in recent months, the uneasy rapprochement between the UUP's Trimble and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams. But that portrayal neglects what McCormack calls the "unheard" peace process, the education and organizing that convinced masses on both sides of the divide that peace was in their interest.

By the early '90s, politics in Northern Ireland was defined entirely by sectarian conflict, and government defined entirely as an obsession with security. Northern Ireland's contending parties were responsible to no one but their own back-benchers and paramilitary allies, breeding a kind of self-reinforcing militance.

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Now, instead of bringing to power only each side's "permanent government," some truly resourceful people are seizing the opportunity represented by the Good Friday process to open Northern imaginations to the real meaning of inclusivity. Rather than cutting up the pie along lines demarcated Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, they're proposing that the door be flung open to all the constituencies whose voices have never been heard in the halls of Ulster government: the poor, the immigrant, the sexual minority, the physically handicapped.

So while the TV cameras head for Trimble and Adams, at the deepest level the peace process is not about them. Its complex procedures are engineered, says McCormack, to "create cooperation between government and the people who govern," which after 27 years of rule from London represents a radical departure.

To get some idea of how radically things change starting now, consider that the new cabinet's education minister is Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, who distinguished himself as the IRA's brigade commander in Derry in the 1970s. Under the careful checks, balances and equality benchmarks of the Good Friday agreement, he is now legally bound to deliver schooling across community lines, "advised and assisted" by a committee headed by two Unionist deputies who until recently would have happily run McGuinness out of the province.

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What has really happened is that the era of heroic Republicanism and mythic Unionism is over. It has been replaced by the mundane responsibilities of building sewers and dividing up budgets, which under the Good Friday accords cannot happen without at least token consultation across community lines. For the first time, sectarian leaders will, in the word of one Irish political veteran, sometimes "have to say no their own people, and yes to others."

The Ulster peace accord is also far more profoundly an all-Ireland process than overseas reporters usually understand. "The impact on the South is really quite substantial," reflects Dick Spring, the Irish Republic's former foreign minister at the time negotiations began -- negotiations that turned into an infinitely complex diplomatic calculus involving not only the direct combatants in Ulster but the governments in Dublin, London and Washington (where the Clinton administration played a notable role in facilitating early talks).

Though no longer foreign minister, Dick Spring still represents County Kerry in the Dail, the Irish Republic parliament. A first-time visitor to his constituency in Kerry, which along with County Cork forms the southwest corner of Ireland, might well imagine these peninsulas of wild mountains, dramatic coastlines and rolling farmlands to be as psychically removed from the traumas of Belfast as they are physically remote.

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The small towns all look freshly-painted and prosperous; local businesses are the small boats lifted by the tide of transnational commerce which Ireland's highly-educated population has attracted and held. The new Irish economy is so robust that for the first time in 800 years British laborers are booking passage to Irish construction sites rather than the other way around. Unemployment is so low that a few days ago the Irish government announced that 3,000 guest workers will be imported from Europe to meet the needs of farmers, unimaginable in Ireland's long agrarian history.

Yet Spring's constituency lives in a landscape which earlier in this century ran red with the blood of martyrs in the war of independence from Britain, as well in the brief, horrifying civil war that followed. Monuments on the sites where heroes fell dot the roadsides, pictures of IRA founder Michael Collins are still occasionally visible through the window of a home and a former IRA gunrunner was elected just last year to the County Kerry Commission on the Sinn Fein slate.

Despite the historic resonance of Republican politics in Cork and Kerry, these districts, like the rest of the Irish Republic, voted last year to remove from the nation's constitution its historic claim of sovereignty over the territory of the North, long the basis of fear and contention by Ulster's British-identified Protestants. That change, as dramatic as the new ministerial council in Belfast, occurred simultaneously on Thursday.

What enabled such a shift, says Spring, is twofold. "There is fatigue among those who were actually waging the war. As recently as last Friday I was talking to a room of Republicans who said they supported the Good Friday accords because they are middle-aged guys who want to get on with their lives.

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"And then there are younger people who bring a total change of mindset: A generation of people who are more inclined to see their Irish identity in cultural terms. For them, the claim to national territory is not so compelling. They have a far better understanding of the presence of 1 million Protestants on this island, a history which was not previously taught us in school." Indeed, Thursday did not just bring about the removal of Ireland's old constitutional claim. In its place is new language casting Irish identity not only in terms of the island's two traditions but the worldwide Irish diaspora.

And the settlement that finally resulted from five years of negotiation is a thorough transnational innovation -- in Spring's words, "a new working model for governance" with a north-south Ministerial Council and institutions for regulating health, the environment, human rights and commerce for the whole island. With the resolution of ethnic conflict across national lines a burning issue everywhere from the Balkans to Indonesia, Ireland's experiment is being closely watched.

Spring is sanguine about threats to this new arrangement. On each side, there are peacebreakers as well as peacemakers. Among Republicans, the "Real IRA," responsible for last year's horrific bombing in the Northern market town of Omagh, regards Good Friday as a sellout of United Ireland. Fewer than 100 in number, their leaders well-known, they are intensely monitored by police on both sides of the border.

Far more numerous and unpredictable are dissident Unionists in the North: Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party which agreed to participate in Stormont only with the express promise of disrupting its proceedings and that substantial segment of Trimble's UUP which voted against Stormont.

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Even more dangerous, says Spring, is David Trimble's resignation pledge to his recalcitrant back-benchers. "Trimble has put himself in a very precarious position that does not fill one with confidence," Spring says.

In fact, IRA "decommissioning" as a precondition for Sinn Fein's participation has never had much meaning as peacemaking. Though the IRA has pledged voluntary cooperation with an international disarmament commission, everyone agrees that the IRA could speedily rearm if it wished, and some of the most potent bombs have been made of that basic commodity of an agrarian economy, fertilizer.

Instead of a prerequisite of peace, decommissioning is a political demand by Unionists -- intended, depending on which faction is talking, either to humiliate Republicans, to wreck the Good Friday Agreement by delaying its implementation so long it falls of its own weight, or worst of all, to provoke a resumption of IRA violence. So far, the IRA has stuck to the "decommissioning" which counts most: An end to sectarian combat, even in the face of continued low-level loyalist violence against Catholics.

Disarmament is far from the only issue with the potential to derail Ulster's promising new government. "Don't underestimate the resistance among some Unionists" to the cross-border institutions, Spring warns. Even though financial services and agribusinesses are already functioning in both the North and South, and Northern business leaders would like a ride on the back of the Celtic Tiger, hardline Unionists take a dim view of Irish Republic investment in the North. In late November, for instance, Unionists sounded the alarm at reports that British banking giant Natwest might sell out to an Irish holding company. The chairman of Natwest, however, did not even reply.

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Just as symbolically volatile is policing -- reform of the notorious Royal Ulster Constabulary. Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, commissioned by the British government to report on RUC reforms, carefully delayed the scheduled release of his final recommendations until early December, after the Stormont government's inauguration. But a few days before the UUP vote, Queen Elizabeth awarded the RUC the George Cross for its service in the Troubles -- a salve to Unionist sensibilities in advance of a controversial overhaul and renaming of a 98 percent Protestant police force deeply tied into Unionist patronage networks.

Neither the George Cross nor any concessions in the Patten agreement mean the RUC controversies are over. Just this week the force was barred from training at the FBI Academy in Quantico because of its documented involvement in human rights abuses. The American Bar Association urged that the force be removed from the investigation into the murder of human-rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson in which RUC officers may be complicit.

To Belfast's Inez McCormack, the key for the new government to survive these high-risk confrontations is for ministers to take their mandate to create social equity seriously, rebuilding Northern Ireland from the ground up. "The question is, can we have economic growth with social inclusion?" she asks. "Development along with regeneration? This society has already had a transformation, coming from people who have experienced the most appalling inequality. Now it is time for that sense of generous transformation to be respected by the politicians. That is the only way this will work."

Cross-border governance, constitutional recognition of cultural diversity and social equity as an imperative of growth -- these innovations of Northern Ireland's peace process, not just short-term "peace," will make the inauguration of the Stormont government a historic marker. Northern Ireland's creation in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 prefigured still-vexatious ethnic partitions in the Middle East and other old imperial possessions. Now a peace process which has apparently ended the three decades of the Troubles may prove just as dramatic an international catalyst.

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Margaret Spillane

Margaret Spillane writes frequently about politics and culture.

MORE FROM Margaret Spillane

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

MORE FROM Bruce Shapiro

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