Our politicians must cease pretence that Sinn Féin is normal party
Published 11/09/2015 | 02:30
Like many thousands of others, I remember vividly the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and how we all felt about it.
We were happy. Or at least we tried to be happy. We had witnessed, often participated in, something historic and something full of promise. After three decades of cruelty and slaughter, Northern Ireland had the chance to enjoy the blessings of peace and reconciliation.
We also felt real admiration for those who had negotiated the agreement and the decommissioning of the IRA's arsenal.
They included two men of power, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, and Blair's brilliant and tough right-hand man, Jonathan Powell. No British government (to say nothing of American governments) had ever devoted, or would ever devote again, so much time, so much energy and so much patience to seeking a solution to the Northern Question which had plagued us for so long.
Could it work? Would it work? On paper, yes. On the ground, it has been a different story. The Northern parties could not work together effectively unless they could find it in them to overcome centuries of prejudice and hatred. They must learn to trust one another.
Yesterday, as the GFA and its successors tottered on the brink of collapse, we knew that, in so far as they have tried at all, they have failed. And we knew a great many other things, none of them pleasant.
Instead of rejoicing, we might have done better to look at the haggard faces of the distinguished men who had overseen the decommissioning.
It had been agreed that all the IRA's weapons and explosives must be put verifiably beyond use. That never happened.
Some IRA caches of arms were never disclosed. Other weapons, amounting to a considerable quantity in total, remained in the possession of the dissident groups.
That did not matter as much as might appear. The world is overflowing with powerful weapons. Terrorists can purchase them almost as easily as they can buy goods in a supermarket. All they need is money, and they have plenty of that - deriving, for example, from their American revenue and the multitude of criminal activities on the border.
Behind it all lurks the IRA who, as has now been confirmed, never went away but sanctioned murder and rape and took a handsome share of the criminals' profits.
There is still an "IRA army council" which, under that or some other name, maintains its grip on Catholic communities. It benefits from the fact that we try to ignore it and the British government finds no difficulty in ignoring it.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland is manifestly undermanned; one has only to look at its difficulties trying to control Orange marches. Relations between the PSNI and the British Intelligence Service, MI5, are a mystery - to this writer at any rate.
Yesterday, while the North waited to hear the worst, Mary Lou McDonald condemned the proposal to suspend Stormont as "dangerous, damaging and deluded". She said that the biggest breakdown in trust was between the two unionist parties.
That was clearly a diversionary tactic and an indication of the blame game to come.
In the real world, there no longer seems to be any prospect of a workable settlement involving parties that respect one another, but only a choice of evils.
Letting the institutions fail must mean reimposing direct rule from Westminster, probably for a very long period, say 10 years. What kind of Northern Ireland can that produce?
Most Northern political parties have little understanding of one another, much less of the Republic or the United Kingdom.
The present Westminster government (and the next one) may pay some lip service to "reconciliation" and so forth, but there will be no lavishing public funds to stimulate a faltering economy. The prospects of foreign investment, meanwhile, will grow dimmer. The "brain drain" will worsen. More bright young people will find places in universities in the Republic or in Britain. They will not come back.
Our own world image will be tarnished. Americans, for example, have all but forgotten that the word "Ireland" was one associated with violence. If the lawlessness on the border gets any worse, that could happen again.
But some kind of options always exist, and even at this harrowing moment two are open to us.
We can form a joint Anglo-Irish force to enforce law and order on the border. Crucial to this would be a first-class intelligence element.
The thugs now active in "bandit country" are known for their crude methods. They are low-grade operators, not criminal geniuses. They would be no match for a small army of trained detectives. Of course, deploying them would cost money, but a little pressure could force the British to stump up. After all, it's their border too.
Finally and crucially, our politicians must cease to join in the pretence that Sinn Féin is a normal political party.