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19 July 1996

Teflon Peace

Mark Ryan assesses the week they said had destroyed the Irish peace process

'Hell beckons for Ulster', intoned the Guardian, following the worst week of violence since the IRA ceasefire of August 1994. Hardly a single leader writer dissented from Gerry Adams' assessment that the 'peace process lay in ruins'. Yet by the middle of the week everything was back to normal. The all-party talks had resumed their interminable course at Stormont Castle, Dick Spring and Patrick Mayhew were being civil to each other again, half the paras drafted into Northern Ireland as a result of the upsurge in violence were being withdrawn, and Catholics from the Lower Ormeau were lodging their compensation claims. Some hell.

There is a tendency to assume that if anything goes wrong in Northern Ireland, the peace process is in peril. But experience shows not the fragility of the peace process, but its virtual indestructibility. Why do the doom-mongers always get it wrong?

First of all there is a tendency to exaggerate every threat to the peace process. The violence which occurred was not the worst that Northern Ireland had ever witnessed. It is absurd to suggest, as many did, that the rioting and burning of Catholic homes was worse than 1969. In 1969, the Northern Ireland state collapsed and had to be rescued by the British Army, such was the scale of nationalist resistance. And after the events of 1969, nationalists queued to join the IRA, not to pick up compensation forms.

The exaggeration of the level of violence is a product of the mood of doom and gloom which pervades the whole of society. Nowadays, if anything goes wrong anywhere, whether in the ozone layer, in men's testicles or on the streets of Portadown, everybody assumes the very worst and proclaims the imminent collapse of civilisation. Everybody seemed to assume that once the violence started it would spiral out of control and into Armageddon. The fact that quite the opposite happened seems not to have embarrassed the jeremiahs. The fear of the worst possible outcome also explains why the RUC panicked at Drumcree and allowed the Orangemen to go down the Garvaghy Road, having initially blocked their way. It was a truly pathetic sight to see RUC Chief Constable Sir Hugh Annesley cite the presence of an earth-mover in the Orange ranks as evidence that his men could not hold the line. If the most militarised police force in the world, backed up by the most efficient army in the world could not commandeer a piece of agricultural machinery from a rabble of middle-aged men, then they may as well hang up their plastic bullet guns and go home.

More importantly, the doom-mongers get it wrong because they assume that the peace process has something to do with peace, and that if the peace is broken so is the peace process. This assumption is wrong, both logically and factually. As Living Marxism has pointed out, there is no contradiction between a high level of violence and the continuation of the peace process. The peace process rests on the belief that a peaceful resolution of long-standing conflicts can come about to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. This is a lie. It rests on the belief that there can be parity between the powerful and the powerless. The reality behind the sugary words of peace is that it is the powerful who always come out on top. Under the guise of bringing peace, Western governments and their clients have crushed opposition movements in South Africa, the Middle East and Ireland. The peace process can only be a bloody affair. If anything, the Irish peace process has been the exception so far, with a relatively low loss of life. In South Africa, more than 10 000 people died in the period from the release of Nelson Mandela and his election as president. In the Middle East, the period since the Oslo accords of September 1993 has seen some of the worst bloodshed in the history of the struggle between the Palestinians and Israel. In both South Africa and the Middle East, violence never scuppered the peace process. Things could get far worse in Ireland and the peace process would stay on track.

The third reason why the prophets of doom get it wrong is because they assume that any outbreak of violence immediately implies a return to the past. What went on last week is very different from the battles of the past. The war of 1969-93 was fought around great issues of principle, of sovereignty, for a united Ireland or for the Union. The peace process has seen all sides abandon their old principles. Sinn Fein/IRA want no more from life than to be allowed entry to the all-party talks which everybody is already finding so tedious. The British government no longer believes in the Union, proclaiming it has 'no selfish, strategic or economic interest' in remaining in Northern Ireland. Unlike the battles of the past, the skirmishes of last week were devoid of any principle. They were no more than petty sectarian squabbles, which because they were so petty, would inevitably fizzle out quickly.

Drumcree was an example not of the Unionists' obsession with arcane principles, but of how desperate they are to find some bogus principle which can justify their existence. The Orange Order claimed that it had been parading down the Garvaghy Road for 189 years and that stopping the parade was an attack on its 'cultural identity'. There was something quaint about the sight of sashed and bowler-hatted rednecks speaking the language of academics and eco-feminists. The Orangemen have changed their marching routes many times in the past. They used to march through the Catholic Tunnel area of Portadown until a few years ago, when the RUC stopped them for the same reasons it tried to stop them going down the Garvaghy Road. They did not like the RUC's decision then either, but they did not regard it as a threat to their 'culture' because they had more important things to defend. Now however they no longer defend the Union and instead try to turn themselves into the Irish version of a tribe of Amazonian Indians, desperate to defend their imperilled 'culture'.

The real losers in the whole degrading spectacle are the people of Northern Ireland. The British government may have more difficulty controlling events with so many busy-bodies and foreign governments involving themselves in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. The fact that so many mediators descended on Drumcree at the first sign of trouble snarled up the state's decision-making processes. But the state can cope with all this. As long as ordinary people are fighting each other over nothing, the state can stay on top, and the peace process will stay on track.

Mark Ryan is speaking at The Week conference in London beginning 26 July, at the course on 'Ireland: war and peace'.

For more information phone Jan Montague on (0171) 278 9908, or mail lm@informinc.co.uk, or go to The Week pages.
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