WORLD

Stilling the guns

A new IRA ceasefire brings hope—but no euphoria

August 4 1997
WORLD

Stilling the guns

A new IRA ceasefire brings hope—but no euphoria

August 4 1997

Stilling the guns

WORLD

A new IRA ceasefire brings hope—but no euphoria

The fish is as fresh and richly sauced as ever behind the frosted windows of Roscoff, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of Belfast. But business is down this summer. “Anyone with the brains or ability got out of Belfast this month,” says Jeanne Rankin, Roscoff’s vibrant Winnipeg-born owner, explaining why the streets are so quiet.

Two summers ago, the people of this troubled old port city on Northern Ireland’s east coast basked in a ceasefire by the Irish Republican Army after 25 years of bombings and shootings. They rediscovered the joy of a nightlife without fear, emerging from the prisons of propaganda and intimidation that have characterized the struggle between mostly Protestant, proBritish unionists and Catholic, pro-Irish nationalists. That all evaporated last summer when a determined Protestant Orange Order paraded through a hostile nationalist area in the unremarkable town of Drumcree, igniting a grassfire of hatred across the province. “People just expected more of the same this summer,” says Rankin, “and they weren’t about to stick around to see it.”

Too bad, since after some tense early sum-

mer days, there has been a noticeable retreat from confrontation in the past two weeks. First, the Orange Order agreed at the last minute to reroute or cancel some of its most provocative marches through Catholic neighborhoods. The IRA then reinstated its 1994 ceasefire, meeting the key condition for allowing its political wing, Sinn

foundering peace talks

IN BELFAST Fein’ to j°in the

sponsored by the British and Irish governments. ‘To think that we had burning cars just a fortnight ago and now we have another ceasefire—ah, it’s a mighty change all right,” says Father Gerry Reynolds of the Clonard monastery in Belfast, an order that once served as a political conduit between Sinn Fein and the Irish government.

Of course every silver lining must have a cloud. The glum news from the province last week was the refusal by the three main Unionist political parties to buy into a proposal that would have ended a year-old dispute over decommissioning weapons. At issue is when and how the illegal paramilitary groups—both republican and pro-British “loyalist”—would hand over their arsenals of AK-47s, Semtex explosive and other

crude sources of influence. Unionist politicians have tenaciously gripped the moral high ground, insisting they will not negotiate with groups that can still resort to the gun should they lose at the bargaining table.

But Dublin and the new British government of Tony Blair claim the ground of hard reality: that any weapons handed over could be quickly replaced anyway, and that the dispute should not hold up talks on a new political arrangement for the province. Instead, they say the paramilitaries should begin handing in weapons in a yet-to-be-defined fashion while negotiations proceed—a deliberately ambiguous proposal recommended by an independent international commission headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell and cochaired by Canada’s ex-chief of the defence staff Gen. John de - Chastelain. As Britain’s dynamic new Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam put it: “I can’t force anybody to participate in the talks. I can’t force anybody to hand in weapons. What I can do is create a situation where that becomes a real possibility.”

Who will be there when the parties convene in September is still an open question. Mowlam says she will judge the sincerity of the IRA ceasefire over the next six weeks before certifying Sinn Fein’s democratic credentials. And hardline Unionist leaders like the Rev. Ian Paisley, declaring that “the gunmen have taken over the process,” strode away from last week’s talks at Belfast’s imposing Stormont Castle buildings vowing he would not be back in September.

Mowlam called the rejection of the decommissioning proposal “a setback, not a disaster.” But there was also some cautious optimism among those pushing the peace process that the weapons issue may, at last, have been removed as an obstacle to real ne gotiations. They based their hope on the de cisión by the leading Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to stay at the table, even though it voted against the decommissioning plan. Their private assessment was that party leader David Trimble’s No vote was based on guarding his flank against hardline Unionist rivals like Paisley, and that he would not ignore the overwhelming public desire to seek a peaceful resolution. Trimble could also take advantage of the political cover provided by the small but influential Unionist parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries— which also want to keep their guns. “The peo-

pie are fed up with absentee unionism,” said Gary McMichael, leader of one of the paramilitary-linked parties as he slammed Paisley’s walkout strategy as “gutless.” “People elected us to go to negotiations to find a settlement and challenge republicans head on.” What the likes of McMichael demonstrated—and Paisley decidedly did not—was an awareness that Unionists are losing the battle of world opinion to Sinn Fein and its erudite leader Gerry Adams. It may have been Catholic heads that got clubbed when police cleared the way for the Orange march through Drumcree last year, but it was Protestant obstinacy in forcing the confrontation that lingered in memory. The backdown from this year’s marches came after loyalist paramilitary leaders warned their Orange Order counterparts that a repeat of Drumcree would lead to full-scale civil war—for which Protestants would be blamed. “The loyalist leadership is becoming more shrewd,” says one security source in County Tyrone. “And they did not want the Orange to go down a route that would lead to apocalypse now.”

But the Orange concession to nationalists and the subsequent IRA ceasefire have produced none of the euphoria that greeted the first ceasefire in 1994. “People don’t have any faith or trust in it,” says restaurateur Rankin. “They just say, Yeah, yeah. How long will it last this time?’ ” The psychological fallout from Drumcree has snuffed out optimism. After that battle came a Catholic boycott of Protestant businesses—often enforced by intimidation from within the Catholic community itself. In turn, Protestant mobs barred Catholics from attending mass. Churches and Orange halls were burned. Sporting and school exchanges were halted. Just before this summer’s uneasy truce, an IRA sniper killed two police officers on a sidewalk patrol in the town of Lurgan, and a teenage Catholic girl was shot to death in bed while she slept beside her Protestant boyfriend.

With the blood from those murders barely mopped up, skepticism that peace talks could produce a settlement acceptable to the gunmen on both sides was understandable. Blair has demanded an agreement by May 15, 1998, but the opening positions of each community remain wildly incompatible. A solution would require nationalists to accept that a majority in the province wants to remain part of Britain. And Unionists would have to acknowledge that a substantial minority must see their Irishness expressed in a new constitutional arrangement. “Sometimes, their positions and language in private are even tougher than what they say in public,” said one official who has sat in behind closed doors. But at least they seem ready to talk, notes an encouraged Father Reynolds, “even if they have to talk to each other through a hole in the wall.” The sound of voices would be welcome in a land where too often the noise has come from doors slamming, or the thump of dirt on a coffin lid. □