The peace process has turned into an endless conveyor belt of concessions
Agreement in the North was achieved on a nod and a wink, says Eilis O'Hanlon, but that way of business only works among people of honour
Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30
Man needs things bigger than himself in which to believe. Once it was God. Now it's the peace process, which has gone from being a phenomenon that can be discussed, dissected, and, if necessary, dissed, into an inviolable good. That was never more evident than in the obituaries of Albert Reynolds, the former Taoiseach whose role in bringing the IRA in from the cold now seems to be regarded as his greatest legacy.
In a way, that's understandable. Had the IRA not ended its campaign, hundreds more people would now be dead. That's a good thing. But to argue that the peace process had negative consequences as well, and that it may be too early to type 'The End' onto Ireland's troubled story, is not to be sorry that bombs are no longer going off regularly in the North. It's simply to acknowledge that most events in politics have a mixed legacy and that history doesn't stand still.
The thing about the peace process is that it wasn't so much a mutual agreement on the way forward as a sleight of hand whereby the republican movement was offered an easy way out of the dead end in which it found itself and then went through the charade of pretending that it was some intricately thought-out undertaking forged in Provo HQ.
Even if it was, just about, possible in the early days of the Troubles to believe the British could be driven out, that had long since ceased to be a credible creed. Riddled with informers and running out of options, it was a doomed organisation which had run its course. A growing Catholic middle class had emerged from the grammar schools; these people wanted prosperity and normality for their own children, not an endless repetition of the darkest days of the 1970s. It was prescient of men like John Hume to recognise that republicans were ready to be shown a way out, but the question remains: Did the IRA buy its way into respectability too cheaply?
The architects of the peace process worked on the assumption that if you could just get the Provos in the door without asking too many questions, then the fine print could all be filled in later. That's why every detail, at every step, was fudged. Remember the great Hume/Adams document? Many were vilified at the time for simply asking: What's in it?
They were promised that all would be revealed in due course, but of course it never was, because the document didn't exist.
Or rather, it existed in many different forms. There was one for everyone in the audience. Unionist impatience with this way of doing things by a nod and a wink was summed up memorably by Marxist critic Terry Eagleton when reviewing a collection by Northern Protestant poet Tom Paulin. Paulin, he noted, "favours harsh gritty language" and "has it in for smoothness and elegance, which to his Puritan mind suggests a bunch of effete upper class Cavaliers camping it up." Leave out the "upper class" bit and this is a neat summation of how many Unionists looked on the peace process. A bunch of silky-tongued chancers were wrapping them up in pretty linguistic bows, promising the moon but refusing to be tied down.
That approach was meat and drink to a man like Reynolds, schooled in the old-fashioned "spit and a handshake" way of doing business. Jazz musician Paddy Cole recalled last week how his old friend had, during the showband days, always driven a hard bargain, but would then, whatever was agreed, stick by it. Unfortunately, those who were brought in from the margins by the peace process were not men of similar honour. Their word was not their bond. They were men who'd subsisted for years on a diet of subterfuge and deception, and they saw no reason to change their ways once the darkest days were over.
The best quote of the peace process came from Reynolds, when he reportedly told the IRA, still prevaricating on the terms of a ceasefire, that "they can do this right or they can shag off." But in practise no one was ever willing to tell the IRA to shag off, even though the IRA had most to lose, facing only ignominy and isolation if it continued with an increasingly pointless campaign, and Sean Duignan's diary of the time makes it clear that Albert knew it.
Still, the peace process is presented as if it was a gentleman's agreement between equals, when it was merely a device to allow the IRA to save face as it succumbed to reality. Allowing your enemy to save face is the decent thing to do - as long, that is, as the enemy doesn't subsequently turn around and rub his saviours' noses into the dirt by disseminating shameless absurdities about what happened.
That's what Sinn Fein is about right now, and it's using those lies to inch incrementally into the heart of Irish politics. Take the ridiculous article by Gerry Adams in the Irish Times last week, in which the SF leader's childish fondness for playing the Belfast beret boy when he gets the chance was in full swing as he indulged in some nostalgic, retro chic tub thumping about the "strident" British (boo) and noble Irish (hurrah).
In this version of events, the peace process was a magnanimous gesture from republicans who, despite being right about everything, generously decided to let the Brits off the hook even as the British spurned the hand of friendship. Not a word about how the British had been infiltrating IRA/SF for years, preparing the ground for this very moment.
Adams, hilariously, even declared that one factor at work was that "Sinn Fein was growing in strength". Far from it. Sinn Fein support had fallen at every occasion since the high point of 1983, and Adams himself had lost West Belfast to the SDLP. It was patently obvious that the party's electoral ambitions were being hampered by continued violence.
That Adams prefers fairytales to facts is his business, but there's no doubt that this gameplaying was encouraged, and to some extent institutionalised, by the series of crafty manoeuvres which came to be known as the peace process; and the great danger was always that, never having been told to "shag off" when making unreasonable demands, republicans would continue to see the process as a conveyor belt of ongoing concessions. Pocket one, then ask for another. Repeat until victory.
It's never too late to tell the IRA to shag off.