A bad summer in Omagh and Ballymoney
...but a better one for those running the Irish peace process, explains
This summer in Ireland, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Irish premier Bertie
Ahern have turned tragedy into triumph by ensuring that the killings in
Omagh and Ballymoney further consolidate their hold over the peace process.
The Omagh bomb planted by the Real IRA in August killed 29 people and
injured 280 more. As everybody from the Ulster Unionists to Sinn Fein moved
to condemn the bombing, a new line of demarcation was drawn between the
politics of peace and the politics of extremism. After Omagh, those from
the nationalist community who expressed any reservations at all about the
direction of the peace process could automatically be discredited by association
with the bombers, effectively branded as pro-violence and anti-peace.
One month before, a similar reaction to violence had acted to isolate
the critics of the peace process on the Unionist side. The deaths of three
young Catholic children in Ballymoney, county Antrim, after a firebomb attack
by loyalists, provoked a massive reaction against the Orange Order. A highly
orchestrated campaign by the media and politicians successfully linked
the murders to the anti-peace process protest at Drumcree. Within days
the Drumcree protest whittled away, as thousands of bewildered Orangemen
caved in to a mood labelling them the accomplices of childkillers.
In Ireland, Britain and the USA the official peace process has now become
synonymous with peace itself. To question the process at all is assumed
to mean casting your vote in favour of sectarian violence and terror. In
fact, you do not need to have any sympathy with the Real IRA bombers or
the loyalist arsonists in order to question the underlying aims and consequences
of the process being orchestrated by the authorities in Washington, London
and Dublin. But by recasting the peace process itself as the ultimate goal,
and counterposing it to the terrible events in Omagh and Ballymoney, the
brokers of the process have ensured that any thin voices of dissent which
remain are immediately discredited.
The tragedy is that something like Omagh is actually linked to the peace
process and the instability it creates. Under the artificial consensus imposed
through the peace process, peace in Ireland is now associated with compromise
and the need to forge an accommodation between the two traditions of Unionism
and nationalism. Clearly any agreement between those who want a united
Ireland and those who want continued British rule can only come about when
they have abandoned their goals, and so both sides have had to drop their
principles and play down differences.
As a result of this, Unionists or republicans who claim to uphold their
traditional principles have been left isolated and powerless. Lacking a
political alternative or popular support, they have lashed out against
the peace process in nihilistic gestures such as Omagh. Just as bombs and
shootings have become part and parcel of the seemingly endless peace processes
in South Africa and the Middle East, so they are intimately bound up with
the process in Ireland.
But these bombs and killings have not undermined the peace process,
as many claimed Omagh would. In fact they have helped to shore up the artificial
consensus. When Unionists and nationalists alike occupy the middle ground,
and dissent seems to be expressed only through isolated acts of violence,
all criticism of the peace process comes to be understood as at least condoning
the bombings and burnings.
For example, within hours of the Omagh bomb politicians and the media
had named Bernadette Sands-McKevitt and her partner Michael McKevitt as
key suspects. The sister of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Sands-McKevitt
is the public face of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, a group of dissident
republicans opposed to Sinn Fein's role in the peace process. After Omagh,
that was enough to make her guilty in most people's eyes. She issued a
statement denying any involvement in the bombing and opposing any bombing
campaign, and her accusers produced no evidence to the contrary. But on
the wave of post-Omagh bitterness directed against any dissenters, Sands-McKevitt
and her children were driven from their home anyway.
The process of discrediting all opposition was also evident in the debate
about introducing new anti-terrorism legislation after Omagh. The far-reaching
new laws, which even Tony Blair conceded were 'draconian', were not needed
to convict the few individuals responsible for the bomb. Nor were they
needed to wage an ongoing war against the Real IRA, which collapsed in
the face of the wave of public outrage that was whipped up post-Omagh.
The legislation was less a practical measure than a symbolic gesture, drawing
a line that marks out all potential opponents of the peace process as dangerous
outlaws who may need to be dealt with through extraordinary measures.
The conflation of all opposition to the peace process with the Omagh
bombers threatens to close down the space for any genuine political debate
on Ireland's future. That is another tragedy.
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998