DUBLIN, Ireland—If all goes according to the plan set out by the Dublin and London governments, in May this year the two governments will sign an agreement with the main political parties in Northern Ireland that will finally end the conflict between unionists and nationalists. Since the Northern Irish “troubles” began in 1968, more than 3,000 people have died in the violence.
Presently, the proposed agreement remains a very big “if.” Unionists believe they are losing out to nationalists in negotiations and there are many contentious issues yet to be addressed. Among them: the release of political prisoners, the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and a solution to annual parades of Protestants through Catholic neighborhoods.
Unionists, also known as Loyalists, support continued British rule, while Nationalists, also known as Republicans, seek an end to British rule and the creation of a united Ireland. The political differences between the two are exacerbated by the fact that they are linked so closely to religious identity, with unionists being predominantly Protestant and nationalists being predominantly Catholic.
Before the newly elected British government would allow Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to enter the peace talks, the government insisted that the IRA would have to declare a cease-fire. In August 1994, the IRA did just that in the hope of entering talks with the previous British government lead by John Major of the Conservative Party. But Major's minority government relied on the support of Unionist politicians for its survival and the Unionist veto delayed both the peace talks and the early release of prisoners.
The prisoner issue is seen by many as crucial, for both Loyalist and Nationalist prisoners play a major role in their organizations' leadership and the decisions to call their respective cease-fires. After 16 months with no sign of a start to negotiations, the IRA resumed their campaign of violence in February 1996.
When the Labor government was elected with a massive landslide last spring, the Unionists' votes were no longer needed, and Labor leader Tony Blair showed much more flexibility in dealing with nationalists. For example, Scotland now has its own tax-raising assembly, and Wales has partial devolution.
Last summer, after being given an ultimatum—declare a cease-fire within five weeks or the talks will start without you—the IRA ended military activity. At first, unionists were unwilling to enter talks with “men who had blood on their hands,” but when they were also told negotiations would start with or without them, the three main Unionist parties—the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP)—entered the negotiating rooms at Stormont Castle. UUP leader David Trimble said he was doing so “not to negotiate with the IRA, but to confront them.”
Since then the talks have proceeded in fits and starts with Unionists willing to talk to all parties except Sinn Fein. They were dealt a body blow shortly before Christmas though, when the Dublin government announced the early release of Republican prisoners who had been transferred to the republic from Britain.
Unionists said it was a sign that “everything is going the Republicans way” and David Ervine, leader of the PUP, the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the largest and most active Loyalist terror group. Ervine said he was reconsidering his party's participation in the Stormont negotiations. On the day before the prisoners were released, he had had a meeting with Irish governments and no mention had been made of the forthcoming release of prisoners. He said the Dublin government's lack of consultation with Unionists, showed “lack of respect” and “contempt” for both Ervine personally and the unionist population in general.
Slighting Ervine was a major mistake by the Dublin government, said Jesuit Father Brian Lennon, who has played a “behind the scenes” role in establishing the current peace talks.
“The peace process needs to be built on respect, confidence, and understanding, where each side [is coming from a common ground]. Confidence building measures are needed,” said the priest. “The Unionists attending a confidential meeting needed to have been informed before the Irish government went public on the release of prisoners. It's a serious breakdown in relations. The Loyalists have been put in difficulties and things look very [bad].”
Paroled for the holidays, UVF prisoners cast a shadow over the Christmas festivities when they announced they were reconsidering their cease-fire, which has held since 1994.
Then, only two days after Christmas, a leading Loyalist, Billy Wright, was assassinated inside the Maze prison. Wright, known as “King Rat” for his role in sectarian attacks against Catholics, was leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a small but active terrorist group that has not declared a cease-fire and doesn't recognize the current peace talks. He was shot by members of the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army, a Nationalist splinter group that also refuses to recognize the peace process.
The assassination immediately provoked rioting and an LVF tit-for-tat gun attack in Dungannon Dec. 28 that lead to the death of a Nationalist who had served a prison sentence for murder. More seriously, the UVF say that if evidence is found that the IRA assisted the INLA in Wright's killing, it will take that into account in its deliberations about ending its cease-fire.
“We hope that this is nothing more than unionists ‘saber rattling,’” said Father John McManus, spokesman for the Down and Connor archdiocese. “There is a fair bit of time until the talks resume [Jan. 12].”
He believes the current difficulties are a distraction from the many important issues that have to be faced in the peace process, among them the parades issue, which is regarded by RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan as “the most contentious” in Northern Ireland. Each year, in the period between Easter Monday and the end of September more than 2,000 parades are staged by three Protestant fraternities—the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys, and the Royal Black Preceptory. The vast majority of these parades go off peacefully. But about half-a-dozen that pass through Catholic areas are bitterly resented by residents who see them as displays of Protestant triumphalism.
Recently, the British government set up an Independent Parades Commission to take decisions about controversial parades out of the hands of the RUC, but Father Lennon and many other Catholic priests see that as merely the tip of the iceberg. They believe there must be a wholesale reform of the RUC before they will be accepted as a police force by the Nationalist community.
“The number one problem in Northern Ireland is the lack of an impartial police force. The RUC are seen as defenders of a Protestant ascendancy,” says Msgr. Denis Faul, who points out that Catholics make up only 8% of the RUC's 13,000 police officers. More troubling, a recent internal survey by the RUC of political and religious discrimination within its ranks found that more than a quarter of its Catholic officers suffered sectarian harassment from their colleagues.
At present, the Northern Ireland Police Authority is trying to recruit more Catholics into the RUC to reduce the imbalance, but more serious steps are needed, said Father Lennon.
“In a peace-time situation, it is estimated that the RUC would need, at the very most, 8,000 officers instead of the 13,000 it has now. The authority's approach is to reduce the force and increase the intake of Catholics. I find it difficult to believe that will bring about sufficient change in short enough a period of time. It won't help with the problems in the senior ranks and middle management, you are going to have to take in police personnel from other forces and restructure.”
Father Lennon said the need for reform in the higher ranks was highlighted by inquiry into the murder of a Catholic, Robert Hamill, outside a dance club in Portadown last May. Originally, the RUC issued a statement saying Hamill had died in a fight between two gangs, one Nationalist and one Loyalist. Some weeks later, after issuing a second similar statement, the RUC in Portadown acknowledged that Hamill had been innocently going about his business when he was set upon by a large group of Loyalist thugs.
“That case highlights the lack of confidence in the police force,” said Father Lennon. “Those RUC statements were issued with the full knowledge of its middle management.”
Whether or not there is major police reform, Msgr. Faul believes the “troubles” are coming to a natural end. He said: “These types of revolutions last for a generation, about 25 years, when the hard men start thinking ‘I am still alive, I am not in jail, I have a 25-year-old son and I don't want him to die for Ireland.’ I don't think there is much of a kick left in [the IRA]. It is the Loyalists who are more dangerous. If they think the Republicans are getting things, they will start assassinations.”
Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry is more optimistic though—despite the fact that some Catholics in Derry rioted after an Apprentice Boy parade was allowed by the RUC to proceed. Bishop Hegarty told the REGISTER that “the rioting was devastating to businesses in the town and was corrosive to the morale of the people who had hoped the peace was beginning to hold. It has brought home to people the fragility of the process so far.”
“In my Christmas eve homily, I make a distinction between ‘peace lovers’ and ‘peace makers,’” the bishop continued. “In the beatitudes, Our Lord says to bless those who are peace makers. In the longer term, there is a sense of cautious hope and optimism that the peace process at a wider level will succeed.”
Cian Molloy writes from Dublin.