Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Critical Condition? The Northern Ireland Peace Process.

The British and Irish governments, along with the unionist parties, were obsessed with republicanism. The SDLP began to seem irrelevant. The SDLP was excluded from key talks between the governments, Sinn Féin and the UUP – talks which nearly brought about agreement last spring. Mark Durkan complained and spoke of the 'problem parties' getting all the attention. But it didn't enhance the party's standing. A lack of a strong political identity beyond opposition to violence also contributed to the decline.

Hume was always going to be an almost impossible act to follow – added to which, the insists on endless farewell tributes. Durkan lacks confidence, and there is little charisma among the leading figures of the party.

Regarding Sinn Féin, there aren't many political parties that could endure such a strong association with sinister elements, criminality, etc., and remain so electable. What is their secret? Will they always be so chic or will recent allegations (e.g., Dublin Port) start to tell against them?

The rise of Sinn Féin has been remarkable – from the election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands on his deathbed in 1981 to today, when they are the largest nationalist party in the North. Margaret Thatcher helped – her intransigence as British prime minister made martyrs of the ten hunger strikers and helped create the mass movement, which has backed Sinn Féin since. Many who would not have supported the IRA were even more repelled by Thatcher.

The party, literally, has an army of supporters. It has a disciplined network of volunteers who can be mobilised at election time, and it has a network of local advice centres, many of them in the poorest areas. Its electoral project began with getting thousands of voters from such areas to register and vote for the first time.

The RUC was never accepted as a police force in nationalist areas – it was seen as the armed wing of a hostile unionist state. The IRA policed working class nationalist areas, and although there has always been abhorrence over punishment attacks, there has also, it is clear, been a demand for them in some communities hard hit by crime.

Sinn Féin is unabashedly populist. It loves a rally and a slogan. Its leaders are younger than those in the SDLP and they have appealed to the huge mass of younger voters. They wore sharp suits while the SDLP were in cardigans. No doubt the 'whiff of cordite' has helped in some quarters.

They have also insisted that they are the inheritors of the republican tradition, which has appealed to older generations. Voters responded to their apparent hunger and enthusiasm. The party has trained up its Northern political representatives so that they are skilled at media work – though there are signs that this is beginning to slip.

It has not been nearly so successful in packaging its southern representatives. This is partly because the 'armed struggle' gives a context and meaning the North, whereas in the republic, the lack of a coherent, modern political ideology is rather apparent.

Like the DUP, Sinn Féin will concentrate on the defeat of the SDLP in the coming elections in the North, and on getting more representatives elected in the South.

Another crucial element in the Northern Ireland Peace Process is the relationship between the British and Irish governments. Sometimes they have the appearance of powerless bystanders, particularly since the assembly elections – it's easy to imagine Blair, Ahern, Cowan and Murphy standing around, scratching their heads, wondering what to do. What can they do?

The British and Irish governments are united in their approach, more so at this time than at any other during the peace process. They have handled things badly – convinced they'd get a deal between Sinn Féin and the UUP, obviously at sea when it failed to materialise. They could impose elements of the Good Friday Agreement not dependent on the executive at Stormont. They could implement elements of the Joint Declaration agreed last year. Instead, the Irish government has made itself look foolish by being nice to the DUP and the British have looked shifty by refusing to publish the Cory reports into allegations of collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

Finally, looking twelve months down the line, what do you see for the North?

I do NOT see a functioning executive and assembly up and running and serving all the people of the Northern Ireland equally and responsibly! I don't see a return to war either. Inevitably, eventually, there will be a power-sharing government. But not soon, I fear.

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