A travelling troubadour

Barbara Wickens July 26 1999

A travelling troubadour

Barbara Wickens July 26 1999

No Easy Peace


By Barry Came in Belfast

At Madison’s pub in downtown Belfast, there is no argument when the police arrive. The hour is late and the crowd dense at the long, copper-topped bar, where the usual frenzy of last call prevails. But the noisy throng falls quickly silent, meekly dispersing into the night as the dark green hats and light green shirts of the Royal Ulster Constabulary spread the news. “A wee bomb scare,” explains an RUC sergeant, ushering a visitor into the street. Outside, with practised efficiency, the police seal off both ends of the block with tape while a dog handler leads an explosives-sniffing German shepherd into the pub. There are white police cars everywhere, blue lights flashing, as well as a pair of “pigs,” the term locals use to describe those ubiquitous armoured cars with the steel-latticed windows. “It’s not a good night,” sighs the sergeant, watching the scene unfold. “I just hope it’s not a sign that the troubles are coming our way once again.”

All across Northern Ireland last week, similar fears were

finding voice. Just hours before the “wee” scare at Madison’s, the first cracks appeared in the Good Friday agreement, the multi-party pact signed 15 months ago that was heralded as the beginning of the end of 30 years of bloody sectarian strife. It occurred on Wednesday evening when, in a brisk 15minute session, the 110 members of the governing board of David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party rejected a blueprint designed by the British and Irish governments to provide for the first cross-community, power-sharing executive in Ulster’s history. By Thursday, the Good Friday agreement was in shreds—if not quite a dead letter, then certainly tattered enough for both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, to agree to “park” it for the summer in the hope of stitching it back together this fall.

It is a tall order, especially in view of the chaotic manner in which the Good Friday agreement—and Northern Ireland’s entire evolving peace process—suddenly unravelled. The

Tensions mount as Northern Ireland’s feuding parties allow the Good Friday agreement to collapse

week had started well: the traditional July 12 Protestant parade in Belfast ended without violence, after authorities blocked marchers from a Catholic area.

Thursday was supposed to mark a historic moment, the day when the British government was to hand political power to a Northern Ireland executive composed, for the first time, of elected representatives from both sides, Protestant unionists as well as Roman Catholic nationalists and republicans. What happened instead was a combination of high drama and low farce.

Neither Trimble, Northern Irelands first minister-designate, nor any of the other 27 Ulster Unionist legislators bothered to show up for the ceremonies. Instead, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain outside the party’s Belfast headquarters, claiming they could never serve in a government that included Sinn Fein, widely regarded as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, until the IRA disarmed. Meanwhile, eight kilometres away, the rest of the 108-member assembly had gathered in their chamber at Stormont casde. Faced with the absence of the Ulster Unionists, the Protestant hardliners in Rev. Ian Paisleys Democratic Unionist Party refused to nominate ministers. So did the cross-community Alliance Party. But the two Catholic parties—Sinn Fein and the moderate Social and Democratic Labour Party—went ahead, amid catcalls and hoots of derisive laughter. The result was a 10-member executive composed entirely of nationalists and republicans, including Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, as minister of agriculture and Pat Doherty, brother of an infamous convicted terrorist, as minister of education.

The new government lasted for roughly half an hour before Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, issuing orders from London, dissolved it on the grounds that, as required by the Good Friday agreement, it did not include any unionists. Mowlam then shut down the assembly itself, but not before Trimbles respected deputy in the government, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, had resigned in disgust at the Ulster Unionists’ tactics. Back in London, Mowlam tried, without much success, to sound upbeat. “Today is a setback,” she told a sombre House of Commons. “It would be foolish to deny that. But it would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday agreement cannot continue.”

The deal-breaker issue was one that has bedevilled the agreement from the moment it was signed—the IRA’s reluctance to begin decommissioning its vast arsenal of weaponry and explosives. “No guns, no government,” is the slogan that unionists from all camps have been insisting upon for

months. Trimble reiterated the demand last week as he stood in the rain outside his party’s Glengall Street headquarters in Belfast. “Our concern,” he told Maclean's, “is simply that we do not want to bring into the administration of Northern Ireland an active paramilitary organization that refuses to give up its guns. It wouldn’t happen in London. It wouldn’t happen in Dublin. It wouldn’t happen anywhere in the civilized world.”

For Sinn Fein, Trimbles arguments are merely a ruse, even if it is largely a polite fiction that the Catholic republican party does not speak for the IRA. “This isn’t about guns,” maintained party leader Gerry Adams during a brief conversation outside Stormont. “What it’s really about is the continuing refusal of unionism to share power in any meaningful way with the nationalist and the republican communities in Northern Ireland.” There are many who tend to agree with Adams, not least the British and Irish prime ministers. On the eve of last Wednesday’s critical meeting of the Ulster Unionist governing board, Blair attempted to reassure Trimble and his party by rushing “fail-safe” legislation through the House of Commons. It would have required Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the international body set up to oversee arms decommissioning, to publish a timetable for the IRA and other paramilitaries to begin disarming. The process would start “within weeks” of Sinn Fein joining a Northern Ireland executive and be complete by next May. Any failure would result in the dissolution of the executive.

In the end, it was not enough. Ironically, the breakdown occurred just as Queen Elizabeth was decorating de Chastelain, along with former U.S. senator George Mitchell and former Finnish prime minister Harri Holkeri, for helping to broker the Good Friday agreement. “Quite clearly we would have liked to have seen a different result today,” said de Chastelain after being made a Companion of Honour at Buckingham Palace. “But I believe the peace process is very much alive.”

On Ulsters streets, however, there was none of the euphoria that surrounded the early days of the Good Friday pact, merely resignation and a little anxiety. “It seems to me that a lorry-load or two of arms would not have been too high a price to pay to keep this agreement alive,” remarked Michael Gallagher as he stood in a street in Omagh, not far from where his son died in a car bomb explosion mounted by an IRA splinter group last August. “I think the politicians have let us down. They owe it to our children and our childrens children to get the job done that we elected them to do.” That task is now much harder. EJ