claims to the contrary, the peace process is not
dead. If anything, it has been resuscitated, although
a lack of proper care and attention over an extended
period nearly brought about its demise. We almost
sacrificed the entire peace process at the altar
of one of its constituent parts: the political process.
And we cannot claim that clinging fast to any principled
position saved the day.
the truth is, if a few photographs and a largely
meaningless declaration of intent had been forthcoming,
the two governments and most of the rest of us (myself
included) would have been prepared to elevate the
political leadership of what is now being openly
described as a "vast criminal conspiracy"
to ministerial positions within Northern Ireland.
things had gone according to plan, the way would
then have been clear for the same group of people
to direct their attention and substantial resources
towards realising, within a few years, their primary
goal of infiltrating a sovereign government in the
it was arrogance on the part of the Provisional
republican movement itself that saved the process:
that and their deep reluctance to do anything which
might help to bring about political stability.
Christmas they had every reason to believe that
they could ignore the requirements of others, allow
the negotiations to collapse and walk away, leaving
unionists to take the blame.
if backed into a corner, they could have taken up
ministerial posts alongside the Democratic Unionist
Party and allowed fall-out from the upcoming Northern
Bank robbery to inflict enormous damage on the DUP,
in much the same way as they betrayed the Ulster
Unionists over decommissioning.
Machiavellian tactics had always worked in the past.
Not this time.
could easily have side-stepped demands for photographic
evidence of weapons being decommissioned, but their
refusal to publicly eschew criminality set alarm
of the previously suppressed doubts about whether
the Provisional movement was genuinely committed
to purely democratic means began to rise to the
surface again. Within a few weeks of that, and by
way of the bank heist, self-delusion and reality
eventually did collide, with any remaining trust
being trampled underfoot as worst suspicions were
that has happened since Christmas has served to
further illustrate just how close a call liberal
democracy has had. Before the Northern Bank raid,
facing up to harsh realities had been out of vogue.
For a full 10 years critical faculties were suspended
while wishful thinking and a dogged determination
not to upset the finely tuned sensitivities of former
combatants were the order of the day.
from suffering any real pressure to change, paramilitaries
of every stripe have had egos massaged and been
courted by the political establishments of three
sovereign nations. That approach caused enormous
damage to the peace process. Paramilitaries quickly
realised that they could behave virtually as they
liked, with little or no sanction.
that is exactly what they did.
paramilitary confidence grew, that of the ordinary
people ebbed in direct proportion. They kept hearing
about a marvellous peace process, but for the life
of them, try as they might, they could not see much
evidence of it.
recently, such was the desire to get political institutions
up and running in Northern Ireland that no one bothered
to consider whether the peace process itself was
in any fit state to bear the weight.
conveniently ignored a fundamental principle of
the peace process: that paramilitary groups had
to fall into line with democratic norms before they
could be trusted to wield any measure of civic or
political power. Instead, we contorted the rules
of democracy to accommodate them.
the more than a decade of ceasefires, all of the
paramilitary groups have continued, without interference,
to recruit new members. During that time the extent
of their criminal activity has been limited solely
by the entrepreneurial and imaginative skills at
their command, and not by any robust application
of the law.
stranglehold on local communities has extended to
areas previously free from any paramilitary influence.
Murder, "punishment" beatings, extortion,
racketeering and intimidation have continued unabated.
we ploughed on regardless, as if the more power
and respect we afforded them, the more chance there
was of paramilitaries changing their ways. It never
dawned on us that, if people have shown no signs
of changing after a decade of pampering, then it
is highly unlikely that they will ever change of
their own free will.
is long past time that the private armies, and all
that comes with them, disappeared from the scene.
If people are serious, then they have no need of
an armed wing. The political strand must remain
in cold storage until those who wish to hold political
office have clearly demonstrated that they can measure
up to the standards that democracy demands.
with permission of the author.