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After the deluge, dreary steeples still stand their disputed ground

IT is a quotation which generally produces groans from students of history who see it as the stalest of cliches, having been reproduced so often in books and newspaper articles on the North.

"The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

Winston Churchill was describing the aftermath of World War 1, yet the American attacks give his words a new freshness and relevance.

A new international order may be coming into being; but back in Belfast, Fermanagh and Tyrone, the same dreary issues arms decommissioning and the inability to live together are still being recycled.

The American attacks offer a sense of perspective and proportion: while the Irish troubles claimed just short of 3,700 lives, the US attacks killed almost twice that number in a single day.

However, the short term looks bleak for the vital task of underpinning the peace process in the North with an agreed political settlement.

Unless something turns up soon, the Belfast Assembly and other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement may be headed for cold storage.

There might be fewer killings, but unionists and nationalists remain far apart locked in fierce competition, rather than co-operation.

The American attacks will have an impact on the problem, but so too will a string of other factors.

For a start the general election in June changed the political landscape, boosting Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein as it weakened the SDLP and David Trimble. Since then John Hume and Seamus Mallon, who have headed the SDLP for two decades, have both announced they will be stepping down.

July brought Mr Trimble's resignation as First Minister, with a flurry of talks which introduced new IRA language on decommissioning that was seen as significant, but insufficient.

Then came news of the IRA's Colombian adventure, with the arrest of three Irish republicans there.

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The IRA has since said none of its members were involved in training or military co-operation, but has offered no detailed explanation of what was going on.

In the meantime Northern Ireland struggled through a dreadful summer marked by several killings, but most of all by a great many riots and disturbances.

The poison came out most of all in the Ardoyne school dispute, where in a hate-filled atmosphere loyalist protesters tried to stop Catholic girls getting to school.

Although it has largely disappeared from the headlines major security is still in operation each day to get the girls and their parents to and from their school.

In Ardoyne violence has become the norm. On Sunday afternoon, for example, a group of children some of whom looked as young as five could be seen leaving their playground. They moved on to Ardoyne Road to shower two passing army jeeps with bricks and stones, then returned to their play. The jeeps drove on through the hail, being careful not to knock down any of the kids, and went on their way. The children did not get over-excited by it all; it was pretty much a matter of routine. A number of adults were not far away, but none intervened.

Such is childhood in Ardoyne; such is the reality of life in a place where most Protestants and Catholics hate each other, and the majority of both also hate the security forces.

It is also a metaphor for the wider political scene, in that many are determined to carry on the conflict either on the streets or through the politics of confrontation.

There has been some progress on policing, with Mr Trimble, Mr Paisley and Mr Hume all signing up for the new Police Board which will supervise new policing arrangements.

But Sinn Fein are refusing to do so, which means there is little sense of any historic breakthrough on the issue.

The effects of all these developments are still working their way through the system. They clearly amount to major changes, but so much has happened so quickly that their exact consequences are still unclear.

One thing is, however, very obvious: the Protestant and unionist communities have lost faith in the Good Friday Agreement, and in all probability would not mourn its loss. Only half of them ever supported the accord in the first place, and it is now doubtful whether even a quarter still believe in it.

David Trimble's moves to pull his party's ministers out of the local government have caused dismay in some quarters, but not within unionism itself, where the settled overall judgment is that the agreement has been a vehicle for delivering a stream of concessions to republicans and nationalists.

The departure of unionist ministers, which looks inevitable within the next few weeks, means the devolved government will grind to a halt.

The peace process has coped with such setbacks in the past, but this time it could be different.

Once Humpty topples off the wall, getting him back together again would require convincing large sections of Protestant opinion to undergo a dramatic conversion, to renew their faith in the accord and give it another chance.

Only one thing could do that the decommissioning of IRA arms on a major scale.

The atmosphere is so bad at the moment, however, that even this might not be enough to effect a transformation. What is clear, however, is the strength of the simple equation that no handover of guns will mean no government. This is where the outside world comes in.

The Bush administration was already talking tough to Sinn Fein, pushing for an explanation of what was going on in Colombia. After September 11, its line is going to be even tougher.

Perhaps the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks will help convince the IRA that the time for decommissioning has finally arrived.

Perhaps the organisation will gracefully take advantage of the changed circumstances.

Perhaps, finally, world events will affect Fermanagh and Tyrone, and for the better.

And perhaps it is not too much to hope that the carnage of New York can help save the peace process in Ireland.

* Independent News Service

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