Martina Devlin: Peace didn't mean justice as a greater good was brought into play
Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30
Let's set aside the image of mistrustful politicians in Stormont for a moment, and consider what the peace process has meant for Ireland over the past two decades. A beauty - terrible in some ways - was born because peace came, but at a price.
In the Republic, the price tag wasn't much considered because the North was no longer on the radar, now that images of havoc were not transmitted daily on television screens.
But people in the North, and in the border region, knew that creative ambiguities had been allowed in the interests of nudging a settlement over the line. Among those ambivalences were the links between political and military activity. The political accountability of militant Republicanism was never insisted on in the interests of persuading its leaders to stay inside the tent.
One way forward might have been a truth commission, as in South Africa, but regrettably this idea appears to have withered on the vine.
Meanwhile, the North settled down to power-sharing, and to its first real taste of normality after 30 years of violence. And Sinn Féin embarked on the evolutionary process with which it is still engaged.
Perhaps there is a sense in some quarters that Sinn Féin should do a little more penitence occasionally in return for executive power, but sackcloth and ashes are not to be found in its party's storeroom. However, there is certainly an acceptance among the leadership that the use of force will not achieve its political ends.
Undeniably, despite occasional setbacks, these past two decades have been good ones for Ireland. Peace in the North has been positive for Ireland's reputation internationally.
Belfast has flourished, even if the towns west of the Bann have not shared fully in the prosperity, and unemployment is higher there. Restructuring the public finances has not yet been agreed by the power-sharing parties.
Yet a buzz is noticeable in Belfast, with fashionable restaurants and bars full to the rafters, tourists thronging the Titanic Quarter and cultural events attracting large audiences in the Cathedral Quarter. Film crews are operating in the North now making the fantasy series Game of Thrones, as opposed to the grim reality charted by news crews during the Troubles era.
Take any year from those decades of the Troubles and compare the body count with the two deaths this year currently in the news. These statistics have been logged by the Sutton Index of Deaths. In 1972 there were 479 deaths. In 1982, 110 deaths. In 1992, 89 deaths. And then we reach 1995, the year of the IRA ceasefire, and suddenly the figures drop to nine deaths.
1998 was a bad year - the Omagh bomb, planted by dissident republicans, accounted for more than half of the 55 deaths. But in the entire decade between 2001 and 2010 there were 58 deaths. Still 58 too many - but nothing compared with the carnage of previous decades.
Sinn Féin has made enormous strides in the 20 years since Gerry Adams uttered that memorable line about the IRA: "They haven't gone away you know." He said it back in August 1995. And the gunmen are still there in the shadows. They stepped out into the light recently to kill Kevin McGuigan and Gerard 'Jock' Davison, which led to the PSNI commenting publicly on the IRA's continued existence. That, in turn, sparked political controversy on both sides of the border fuelled by looming elections.
But the IRA is not on a war footing. It isn't planting bombs, or exporting the war to Britain. It isn't trying to destabilise the Northern state. I don't point this out as a justification for its continuing existence but to offer some context.
Some of those fudges which were allowed by the two governments, in the interests of reaching a settlement in the North, now risk collapsing the Stormont administration. This is a hazard which Dublin and London know must be avoided because it would create a vacuum. And there are extremists hungry to fill that space - people for whom the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is a sell-out.
People know the gunmen didn't vanish into thin air, and they are disingenuous if they claim otherwise. The gunmen - and women - were absorbed back into the community from which they sprang; 'volunteers' and 'civilians' are living alongside one another.
Some gunmen transitioned into politicians, an unpalatable step in certain quarters, but mostly tolerated as necessary to bring their community with them. That was another creative ambiguity.
Peace didn't mean justice, and those who suffered personal losses as a result of the violence had to accept that. The greater good was brought into play. We hear a lot of talk about reconciliation. But we shouldn't forget how difficult it must be for some to accept paramilitaries freed early from jail, for example, when their loved ones will never return home.
Meanwhile, there has always been a nagging worry that the IRA ceasefire is not permanent - that it is a cessation for now rather than a categorical end to violence. Recent events stoke those fears, alongside the suspicion that Sinn Féin has not abandoned the armed struggle, and its political engagement is a tactical manoeuvre.
For although weapons were decomissioned - that was verified by the International Monitoring Commissioned, now disbanded - they can always be sourced again. Gunmen get a little rusty but they don't forget how to pull a trigger.
Clearly, there is mistrust between the parties north of the border, while the parties in the Republic are wary of Sinn Féin's advance. Sinn Féin is trying hard to become a legitimate party in the North but it isn't quite there yet. It is bedevilled by its past - a past which continues to impact on the present and cause others to look askance at it.
Yet what observers forget during controversies is that it's the party's work on the ground which ensures its support. The Mairia Cahill controversy, for example, made no impact among the faithful, and Mr Adams tops the poll regardless.
The reproaches raining down on Sinn Féin are attributed entirely by the party to elections on the horizon, and political point-scoring by rivals. And while there is some truth in this, it is not the whole truth. It takes time to build trust. Twenty years is not enough after three decades of the Troubles.
In a 1928 Dail exchange, Sean Lemass famously described Fianna Fáil as "a slightly constitutional party", and the same charge could be levelled today at Sinn Féin. Yet Fianna Fáil did evolve into a fully constitutional party, and the hope is that Sinn Féin will do likewise.
Power-sharing has reconfigured the North's landscape - any reading of the public pulse in the North shows a population interested, not in religious or ethnic differences, but in finding and keeping jobs and homes. These are preoccupations which they share with those in the South.
We can all see that the peace process works. It is imperfect. Sometimes it needs help. But there is no better alternative. And the peace process cannot work without Sinn Féin being part of it.