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David Miller : What's Happened To Northern Ireland

With the violence in the Middle East approaching its third month and the United States Presidential election going through its inevitable court battles, the situation in Northern Ireland has faded from the spotlight. With the ongoing courtroom battle to see who becomes the 43rd American President continuing along with clashes in the Occupied Territories, the request by the British and Irish governments that the United States place the Real IRA on its list of designated terrorist organisations does not make headline news, so what is happening in Northern Ireland?

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was a landmark in Northern Ireland’s troubled history and following the signing of this the province has entered into a period of relative calm. The mainstream IRA and the protestant paramilitaries continue to maintain cease-fires and there have been steps towards implementing the thorny issue of weapons de commissioning. Despite the continued suspension of the Belfast assembly due to disagreement over the pace of weapons hand-over and tensions that arise throughout the annual marching season, there has been no return to the violence that has blighted the troubled province’s past.

The ratification of the accords by the Ulster Unionist Council on 27 November 1999, it marked the first time that power was dissolved from London to Belfast with the Unionist’s not only sharing it with moderate nationalist parties but also Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. The devolving of government is the most important element to the peace process and the point upon which the entire process can founder. There are three possible reasons why this could occur. The first is a refusal by the IRA to hand over its arsenal of weapons, the second is a decision by the Ulster Unionists not to allow the Republicans into the power sharing arrangement and the third is reaction to the ongoing sporadic violence of hard-line splinter factions, such as the Real IRA aimed at derailing the peace process.

It is estimated that the IRA has around 100 tonnes of weaponry in its arsenal, along with a substantial amount of semtex explosive. It is this weaponry that the Unionists insist must be handed over before Sinn Fein can take its place in the assembly and why they threatened to withdraw from the assembly earlier this year which forced British Prime Minister Tony Blair to suspend devolution before it could be locally paralysed. The IRA views itself as a legitimate armed force fighting a war and has stated that it is unwilling to decommission its arsenal without reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary being undertaken and the withdrawal of the British Army. However neither is likely to happen while the IRA and the splinter groups have not renounced the use of weapons permanently. Sinn Fein has argued that any decommissioning must be decoupled from the peace process and that the Northern Ireland Assembly must be seen to be working effectively before any weapons are handed over, as this will build a climate of trust among the parties. By having signed up to the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Fein has accepted the principle of democratic rule in Northern Ireland and continued British rule as the party’s mandate was to see a united Ireland and this can only happen should the majority of Northern Ireland’s 1.6 million people wish this to be the case.

The threat to peace in Northern Ireland at present comes from the hardliners on both sides of the sectarian divide who have refused to recognise the Good Friday Accords and seek to derail the peace process. The Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the Red hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers are such groups. Each of these organisations has been formed by hardliners who are disgruntled with the peace process and still on “active service”. These groups have engaged in activities such as arson, beatings through to bombings with the purpose of provoking a retaliatory action from those on the other side of the divide. An example of these actions is the car bombing in which Rosemary Nelson, a catholic lawyer died and which was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders and the 1998 Omagh bombing when 29 people died, which was the work of the Real IRA.

In conflicts as deep and as bitter as Northern Ireland’s and with as much history, there are always hardliners who wish to create a climate of violence in which they can come to the fore. This is an issue, which has inflamed the current wave of Israeli- Palestinian violence and can only serve to extenuate it. Northern Ireland is faced with the same risk. The hardliners on both sides must not be allowed to bring the peace process down. Such a risk was highlighted by the request to Washington to add the Real IRA to the list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Groups held by the State Department, which makes it unlawful to provide funds or other material support from within the United States, denies the group’s representatives and personnel access to the United States and blocks American financial institutions from channelling funds to the group or its agents.

Whether this request is granted will remain to be seen, but in the meantime those pressing for peace in Northern Ireland confront the same delicate path in the 21st Century as they have always faced, striking a balance. The process is still dependent upon decommissioning and Unionist acceptance that the Republicans have complied too their satisfaction and politicians such as UUP leader David Trimble, nationalist leader John Hulme and even Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams must balance the demands of their para- militaries, the limits of concession of their constituencies with the international and local desire for peace. Mission Impossible it is not, Mission Difficult, yes, but somehow with Washington, London and Dublin and the majority of Ulster tired of the violence, the Northern Ireland peace process will forge ahead into the new millennium.


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