Thursday, March 10, 2005

Prospects for Peace in Northern Ireland

For those who follow the stuttering peace process in Northern Ireland, the last few months have hardly been cause for optimism. Various different factors have contributed to this, among which can be counted most importantly the breakdown of talks over the decommissioning of IRA weapons (ostensibly over what kind of and how many photographs should be taken of the process as evidence), and the huge (nearly 40 million euro) robbery from the Northern Bank last December, which has been almost universaly attributed to the provisional IRA(although, naturally, strenuously denied by them). These have culminated in the IRA's complete withdrawal of its offer to decommission, and its subsequent, ominous warning that the British and Irish Governments must not "underestimate the seriousness of the situation". As a further punishment for the robbery, Sinn Féin members of the UK parliament (the political party with links to the IRA) have had their parliamentary benefits revoked (these MPs are allowed offices and allowances even although they cannot actually take their seats, as a result of their refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen). The reinstatement of the devolved Stormont Assembly in Belfast, at least with Sinn Féin involved, seems like a distant prospect indeed.

Things seem, however, to be changing, in the crucial area of the grass roots support for the more radical wings of the Republican movement. The recent murder of a man in Belfast in which members of the IRA were involved, both in the act itself and in the subsequent cover-up, has created a remarkable groundswell of anti-IRA sentiment in some of its northern heartlands. This has led to an internal IRA inquiry, the organisation expelling some members, explicitly urging witnesses to come forward to the police and guaranteeing their safety, and, astonishingly, publicly offering to execute the men that it believes to have been involved. Why they are so concerned should be immediately clear: while a terrorist movement can survive, and even thrive, on government attempts to crack down on them, the loss of local support would very quickly be fatal. Certainly, what is happening now does seem to indicate that, even in the IRA heartlands of Belfast, their erstwhile supporters are losing patience with its attempts to continue to operate outwith the law: in this sense at least, the peace process, although institutionally faltering, does seem to have created certain expectations that threaten to undermine the IRA's local support. The siege mentality, the almost complete lack of trust in UK state institutions seem to be subsiding - as demonstrated by the family of the murdered man's insistence that IRA internal "disciplinary measures" will not suffice, only an open and transparent court proceedings. This, perhaps, could be the most important development yet in the peace process as a whole.

It is, of course, as yet too early to make confident predictions of this sort. However, an interesting indication will be to see how Sinn Féin perform at upcoming elections, given their links to the IRA. For some time nowm, they have been the elcetorally stronger of the two nationalist parties - and the difference has been growing since the 2001 Westminster Parliament elections (in which Sinn Féin won 21.7% of the vote, whereas the SDLP took 21%) through the 2003 Assembly elections to last year's European elections, where Sinn Féin won 26.3% to the SDLP's 15.9% (see here). The general, UK parliamentary elections, to be held in a few months time, will be an interesting indicator of the effect that the events of the last few months have had on the grass roots support for more radical forms of republicanism; and, by extension, of the relative strength of the peace process, regardless of the situation institutionally.

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