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The only thing 'historic' about the Northern Ireland settlement was the length of time it took Blair and Clinton to get the exhausted parties to sign it, says Brendan O'Neill

A peace of nothing

'I believe today courage has triumphed. I said when I arrived here on Wednesday night that I felt the hand of history upon us. Today I hope that the burden of history can be lifted from our shoulders.'

Standing on the steps of Stormont castle after a 'long Good Friday', Tony Blair had all the airs and graces of an historic peacemaker. After days and nights of non-stop negotiation the political parties had finally agreed to a peace deal that 'pointed the way to a better future'. Monica McWilliams, leader of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, emerged from Stormont to throw a pile of press releases in the air. 'I can't believe it's all over', she said in exuberance.

Across the world Blair's peace deal was hailed as a breakthrough of historic importance. 'Northern Ireland has the promise of a springtime of peace', said US President Bill Clinton. 'This success is for Europe, and for the whole world, a message of hope in the future', said French President Jacques Chirac. The sense of history was captured in a cartoon in the Sunday Mirror showing a little boy sitting on his father's knee, asking 'What did you do in the Great Peace Process, daddy?'.

But is this new deal really the stuff of history? It is worth noting that there is little which is new in 'The Agreement', copies of which have been sent to every household in Northern Ireland. The idea of having an assembly in Northern Ireland, which would represent nationalist and minority interests alongside those of Unionists, was first floated in the Downing Street declaration of 1993. And the plans for a North/South Ministerial Council and a British/Irish Council of the Isles seem to have been lifted straight from the Framework Document of 1995.

Indeed many of these proposals bore more than a passing resemblance to those which have cropped up in every proposed political solution in Ireland since the short-lived Sunningdale agreement of 1973. The difference is that, in the past such initiatives were widely dismissed as 'talking shops' and 'hollow gestures'; today they are 'groundbreaking' and 'historic'.

Why has the new peace deal been hailed as 'history in the making'? In the Guardian, Mark Lawson put it down to media management and pliable journalism: 'Daily this week, the newspapers publicised without dissent the optimistic predictions of Blairite whisperers of the prospects for a peace deal.' (11 April) No doubt there is some truth in that; weeks before the peace deal was agreed a leaked document revealed that Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam planned to create an inner circle of journalists who would be fed exclusives in return for presenting the peace deal in a positive light. Clearly many journalists relish their role in the spindoctoring of history.

But there is more to this than proactive journalism. 'The Agreement' has been accepted as 'historic', as the only way forward, because the people and the parties of Northern Ireland now have such low expectations.

A journalist friend of mine in Belfast tells me she saw both nationalists and Unionists weeping openly when they heard about the peace deal. But what is there to get so excited about? Nationalists have not got any closer to their traditional aim of a united Ireland, and Unionists have not come out of this with a strengthened Union with Britain. Rather both communities have ended up with the promise of a politically correct police force, some affirmative action and an assembly, the constitution of which will give the people even less power than the Scottish parliament. Yet expectations in Northern Ireland have been degraded to such an extent that this deal is being talked about in the same breath as Easter 1916 and partition in 1921.

What was most striking about the run-up to the peace deal was the morbid fixation on the physical and mental exhaustion of the parties. Politicians who worked into the early hours of the morning were praised by the media for exhausting themselves 'in the name of peace'. Photographers vied for pictures of Unionist and nationalist delegates with their shirt-sleeves rolled up and their hair in a mess to give the impression of a determined and exhaustive process. 'Brave Mo' was even spotted lecturing some of the delegates without her wig, such was her commitment to finding an agreement. It seemed that the more dishevelled, unkempt and weary-eyed the politician, the more committed he or she was to peace in Ireland.

This physical and mental exhaustion reflected the deeper political exhaustion of both the Unionist and the nationalist parties. As has been argued in this magazine before, the political traditions in Ireland are shadows of their former selves. The end of the war between the British government and the IRA has finally removed the political rationale of Unionism and nationalism alike. What could Irish nationalism or republicanism mean once the national question was off the agenda? What role was there for 'No surrender' Unionism, when there was no longer any threat to the Union?

Through the long, drawn-out peace process, the British, Irish and American governments have brow-beaten the Northern Ireland parties into lowering their horizons further and further. The Unionist and nationalist parties have been transformed from political movements fighting over sovereignty and power into 'cultural interest groups', more likely to fight for the right to march down a particular road and to have their street signs in a particular language than for political and democratic rights.

The image of the major players almost sleepwalking around Stormont castle in the long hours before the peace deal was agreed was a fitting symbol of the whole affair. This was a peace process by sloth, a two-year long round of talks about talks about talks, which finally wore the parties down to the point where they would have put their names to just about anything Blair stuck in front of them. At the end of the process, the parties were put under duress by the British and Irish prime ministers and, in a last-minute transatlantic telephone call, by the most powerful man in the world, to agree to something that could be presented to the people of Northern Ireland. The fact that the banal document could be hailed as 'historic' is testament to how low their sights had sunk.

It was not Blair's 'Mandela-like skills' (as one journalist referred to it) that made this deal possible. On the contrary, Blair's role was to exploit the low horizons and political degeneration of the parties to enforce an anti-democratic, anti-people settlement. President Clinton's role in this spectacle is also instructive. When he heard that the peace deal was faltering Clinton got on the phone to the party leaders and 'encouraged' them to put aside their differences and reach an agreement. With Blair breathing down their necks and Clinton whispering in their ears, the worn-out politicians finally agreed to do as they were told by the men from Whitehall and Washington.

But the worst was yet to come. When this charade came to an end Blair and Clinton had the gall to present it as a settlement 'of the people, for the people'. A copy of 'The Agreement' was sent to every household in Northern Ireland with the words: 'This decision is about YOUR future. Please read it carefully: it's YOUR decision.' 'This was achieved by the people of Ireland', said Clinton. Nothing could be further from the truth.

'The Agreement' may be going to a referendum for the people to vote on, but this is likely to be little more than a formality. Already it is suggested that those planning to vote 'No' must be terrorists of some sort, and Clinton has blackmailed people into voting 'Yes' by offering millions of dollars of investment if 'The Agreement' is passed.

The overriding consideration of the peace talks was to keep as far away from the people as possible. Some could not get far enough away: as the negotiations were coming to a conclusion SDLP leaders and others suggested moving the process away from Northern Ireland altogether, to a neutral country like Finland or Norway. The people played no part in this at all - none of those told to celebrate the 'historic' deal on the Shankill or Falls Roads even knew what their leaders had signed up to. One of the most telling post-peace deal interviews outside Stormont was with David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. Asked what he was going to do now, Ervine said, 'I'm off to the pub', and then, wryly, 'after all, I must keep in touch with my constituents'. The assembled media pack and his fellow politicians all laughed as if it was some kind of in-joke: political deals done in Stormont's smokeless rooms, chatting with constituents in pubs.

The new peace deal is a disgrace. It is the result not of genuine political and democratic discussion but of duress and forced agreements. The biggest losers in all this are the republican movement. Some prisoners will eventually be released, Sinn Fein leaders will get seats in the new assembly, Gerry Adams will get a post on the executive and a bit of praise from the international community. But what exactly will the republican communities gain at the end of their 25-year struggle? Sinn Fein and the IRA have not just agreed to down arms. They have effectively signed away everything they once stood for, accepting that there will not be a united Ireland, in return for a handshake from Clinton, a backslap from Blair, and a seat opposite Ian Paisley and David Trimble in a local assembly. Republicanism, rest in peace.

Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam look weary for the cameras at Stormont on 'long Good Friday'

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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