Killing the Northern Ireland peace process

Forget Brexit, argues Odrán Waldron, the British and Irish governments are undermining the peace process by trying to ignore their legacies in the North.

November 5, 2020 · 9 min read
A mural in Belfast commemorating the victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971. Photo credit.

Twenty two years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and 15 after the Provisional IRA decommissioned its arms, Sinn Féin has become an ordinary and quite boring social democratic party. Its new leadership is devoid of any IRA history. Still, each election season in Dublin brings with it a now-predictable chorus of politicians and journalists forewarning that a vote for Sinn Féin is an unconscionable vote for the IRA.

The attacks on Sinn Féin – ‘not a normal party’ according to former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and ‘undemocratic and still run by the IRA’ according to current Taoiseach Micheál Martin – have only grown louder as its parliamentary presence in Dublin has grown. Such is the strength of feeling against Sinn Féin in Dublin’s halls of power that Varardkar and Martin agreed for their parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, historically the two biggest in the southern Irish state, to formally enter coalition together for the first time after February’s general election. This excluded Sinn Féin from government despite securing the largest vote share and 37 dáil (Irish parliament) seats, second only to Fianna Fáil’s 38.

Illegitimate political actors

The view is that those who have taken part in the paramilitary struggle in Ireland and their allies are illegitimate political actors, ‘not fit for office’ as Varadkar put it. Yet it is an accepted fact of life that Sinn Féin – with former IRA volunteers in their ranks – govern in the devolved legislature in Belfast, which both the Dublin and London governments worked for three years to resurrect. Since its rebirth in January, both governments have gone back to their post-GFA attitudes of allowing Stormont to sort Stormont, only passing comment on the north when Sinn Féin or northern affairs, such as Brexit arrangements or the unpacking of the region’s recent history, threaten to upset the Dublin and London apple carts.

One of the surest guarantees of peace was the reincorporation of paramilitary prisoners into everyday life after their GFA-ordered release from prison. Inevitably, some of those who had felt their political convictions strongly enough to pick up a gun chose to continue through peaceful means once the gun was removed from northern politics. On the republican side, this was predominantly done through Sinn Féin. A meaningful peace could never have been brokered without the consent of the men and women of violence on either side of the divide in the north. A fact recognised by Margaret Thatcher when she opened secret talks with the provisional IRA, by John Hume when the Hume-Adams talks commenced, and eventually officially by both the Dublin and London governments.

That those on the Labour left such as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone understood this reality in the 1980s has been used as a stick to beat them with rather than as proof of their prescience. Boris Johnson accused Corbyn of having ‘supported, for four decades, the IRA’, and the former Labour leader was subjected to similar claims throughout the 2017 and 2019 elections. Yet Corbyn is a rare English politician, one of the few who condemns the actions of the British Army in the North throughout the Troubles.

Shocking levels of collusion

It is much more common to hear English politicians in the House of Commons claiming that the murders of civilians by British soldiers were ‘not crimes’, saying that investigations into these killings are ‘unfair’, or signing letters urging that investigations into such matters be halted.

This campaigning bears fruit when the British state refuses to charge more than one soldier for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry and consistently obstructing inquests into atrocities such as the Ballymurphy massacre or the assassination of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. It is perhaps a glaring example that while then Prime Minster David Cameron admitted there had been ‘shocking levels of collusion’ in Finucane’s murder, his family are still fighting for an inquiry.

Cameron’s hollow statement allowed the British state to go about its business as normal. Any inquiry would force Britain to reveal the secrets it holds over the Finucane murder, and successive Conservative governments have dragged their heels in that regard. Brandon Lewis, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is due to make a decision on whether or not to hold an inquiry by the end of November. Whether or not Lewis will order an inquiry is unknown, but nobody could be blamed for viewing the possibility pessimistically. It is thought that his predecessor Julian Smith was sacked by Boris Johnson in part because the commitment he made to initiate legacy investigations as part of the negotiations to revive Stormont.

A similar sentiment of inaction was displayed in Dublin when Unquiet Graves, Seán Murray’s documentary about the lack of investigation into collusion around the Glenanne Gang, was aired by the Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ. The Glenanne Gang was a loyalist alliance made up of British soldiers and loyalist paramilitaries estimated to have committed 120 murders. The only response from the coalition government in Dublin was the former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan writing to the broadcaster to criticise its airing and ask where the crowd-funded and self-financed documentary had received its funding.

Flanagan’s letter exposed the hostility in Dublin towards legacy investigations that have the potential to spill into the Republic. Flanagan’s party leader Varadkar has offered support to the Finucane family, but Pat Finucane was a Belfast man killed in Belfast; inquests into the Glenanne Gang and the subsequent lack of investigation would surely embroil the head of the Irish police force, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

Harris, a former deputy chief constable for the police service of Northern Ireland, was appointed despite calls for his resignation by organisations such as the victims’ families group Relatives for Justice, after it was found that he had wrongly halted investigations into the gang. The message from Dublin in his hiring was that Belfast problems stay in Belfast.

A meaningful peace

Ultimately peace is the simple cessation of violence. A meaningful peace, however, involves the resolution of age-old disputes to allow the region to sift through the miasma of trauma and paranoia that pervades it. While the Irish government browbeats Sinn Féin over its past and shows no understanding of why violence erupted in the first place, the British government is passing laws that legalise the murderous activities that MI5 and other state forces carried out in Ireland. Once again, they signal their unwillingness to offer justice to the families of Derry, of Ballymurphy, of anywhere.

The north of Ireland has limped through its post-conflict era so far, scraping the bottom of economic indicator tables and topping suicide charts as it looks to navigate the present while being denied its past, its people told that their political expressions are illegitimate due to who they elect. It seems that with each utterance and action the governments in Dublin and Westminster strike blows against any hopes for truth or progress, and with them any designs on the ‘shared island’ Micheál Martin has been so keen to talk about. For those governments the question is simple, do you want peace or did you just want the shooting to stop?

Odrán Waldron is an Irish writer based in Belfast.

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