Friday, 11 April 2008

It is Agreement's implementation which has exacerbated division

Over the past couple of days I have sifted through a quantity of the newsprint devoted to evaluating the impact of the Belfast Agreement 10 years on. Some accounts are thought provoking and some less so. Most acknowledge that Northern Ireland has benefited from the agreement as regards consolidating peace and facilitating a degree of economic recovery. The more thoughtful articles also contend that the way in which the agreement has been implemented and the peace process outworked, has actually compounded division in our society, as well as sending a deeply troubling message about the rewards which political violence can accrue.

Yesterday Lord Trimble, who played such a pivotal role in leading unionism to acceptance of the agreement, wrote in the Daily Telegraph about the work still to be done in order to create a truly peaceful society and criticised the Labour government’s repeated concessions to republicans in their desperation to implement the deal. Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article in the International Herald and Tribune questioned how the Northern Ireland peace process could be presented as a paradigm of conflict resolution when what it has delivered is government led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, “a man who, if he were Serb, would be indicted at The Hague”.

In today’s Independent
Gary McKeone adopts a similar approach. Like the previous two articles he draws from the implementation of the agreement the lesson that guns and extremism have flourished whilst adherence to democracy and moderation have resulted in “near annihilation”. Again Jonathan Powell’s dismissal of Seamus Mallon’s objection when an ‘undercover diplomat’ acting on behalf of the Labour government commented ‘the problem with you guys is you don’t have guns’ is quoted. The lesson to be drawn from the Northern Irish experience McKeone surmises is as follows;

“Terror works. Nothing like it to focus the mind. Shoot them coming out of churches; bomb them in restaurants; play trick or treat with a machine-gun in a pub. Stick at it long enough and the next thing you know, you're taking a brief from a civil servant and climbing into a chauffeur-driven car.”

Of course the agreement which was drafted in the run up to Good Friday ten years ago, did not have inherent in it the inevitability that Northern Ireland would be divided between the extremes. Rather it was the implementation of the deal and the Labour Government’s refusal to back David Trimble when he demanded that republicans conform to democratic norms, which compromised his party and led to the electoral success of the DUP. Similarly Sinn Féin’s successes in this regard increased their cache in the nationalist community and marginalised the moderate SDLP.

When Northern Ireland is presented as a model for other peace processes, it is worth remembering that profound mistakes were made. In their eagerness to placate threats from republicans to return to violence, Tony Blair’s government exacerbated an already divided society and destroyed any immediate possibility of building Northern Ireland on the basis of increased sharing. Whether this damage can be repaired remains to be seen.

No comments: