(This article was written in January 1998, before
the 'Good Friday Agreement was signed.)
In January 1997, Ulster Nation expressed concern that Ulster’s troubles
were still far from over. We predicted a gradual cranking up of political
violence at a time when the Provisional IRA’s cease-fire had ended and the
Combined Loyalist Military Command’s own cease-fire was looking very shaky. At the same time, fringe groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Loyalist
Volunteer Force began to make much more of an impact on everyone’s consciousness and the INLA had regrouped.
One major feature of 1997 was the continuance of orangeophobic street
confrontations over parades throughout Ulster. This again came to a head at Drumcree when Orangemen were eventually permitted to walk on their
traditional route along the disputed Garvaghy Road. In other parts of the
country, Orangemen were stopped from walking or -as in the case of the
lower Ormeau Road - they voluntarily re-routed themselves.
In the first half of 1997, the Provisional IRA gave us all a taste of what
it does best. After this powerful demonstration of the ‘tactical use of
armed struggle’, the Provos resumed their ceasefire in late July to allow
Sinn Féin to get a place in the multi-party talks. However, unease among
some republican hard-liners at the direction of Gerry Adams’ pan-Irish
national-chauvinist strategy led to the formation of another breakaway
group - the 32-County Sovereignty Committee. This group has a military wing which calls itself the ‘Real IRA’. A leading member of this new faction is
a sister of Bobby Sands - the much-revered hunger striker whose election victory in 1981 first propelled Sinn Féin into electoral politics.
On the loyalist side, the CLMC cease-fire began to deteriorate. Only the
Ulster Democratic Party and the Ulster Freedom Fighters celebrated the
third anniversary of the loyalist cease-fire in a rally at the City Hall in
The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Progressive Unionist Party saw nothing
to celebrate. Shortly afterwards, the UFF withdrew from the CLMC. In the
meantime, the new LVF faction which had emerged from the Mid-Ulster UVF began a low-level campaign of sectarian assassinations in Ulster and bomb
hoaxes in parts of the Irish Republic. The LVF, like the Continuity IRA and the
INLA, is opposed to the ‘peace process’.
The assassination of Billy Wright, the LVF’s leader, in Long Kesh at the
hands of INLA fellow prisoners was the catalyst for a fearsome response
from the LVF and the UFF. The INLA could not have expected anything else, but the fate of the Catholic victims of that terrible retaliation meant
little to them. In their cynical strategy, such a popular ‘hit’ could only
bring them new recruits and support from disaffected Provo supporters. It must be remembered that the fringe groups do have a serious point
whenever they take the time to argue it.
The present so-called ‘peace process’ is built on foundations of sand in
that the loyalist and republican cease-fires are based on diametrically
opposed premises. The IRA went on ceasefire because its leadership was
persuaded that a suspension of the military campaign could hasten progress towards its goal of an all-Ireland state. On the other hand, the CLMC
called their own cessation on the grounds that ‘The Union is safe.’
While it is certainly conceivable that both loyalists and republicans were
wrong in their analysis it is impossible for both to be right. To sustain
both cease-fires indefinitely would require a high wire balancing act worthy
of Blondel. Something had to give eventually.
At the time of writing in January 1998 the chance of a final peaceful
settlement seems remote. The parades issue is unresolved and is likely to
cause more problems as the marching season approaches. The new Parades Commission is likely to cause more problems than it will solve in the
coming year. The talks on Ulster’s future at Stormont seem unlikely to reach any
agreement unless the governments step in.
Unionists do not want cross-border bodies with executive powers but love
the proposed Council of the British Isles. The SDLP and Sinn Féin do want
cross-border bodies with lots of executive powers but only a very
watered-down Council of the Isles. The unionists and the SDLP do want some local assembly but Sinn Féin won’t have it. As each suggestion is picked up
the talks lurch from crisis to crisis. Both Sinn Féin and the UDP have been temporarily expelled from the multi-party talks for breaches of the UFF and
PIRA cease-fires. How something is going to be cobbled together to go to referendum in
May 1998 remains to be seen.
Our analysis is that the current political status quo will not be maintained. We don’t see a Provo-dominated unitary Irish state around the
corner yet. However, there is no room for complacency. Despite criticism from within his own party, the pressure will be on David Trimble to accept
cross-border bodies with executive powers.
The Council of the Isles will be an oversold toothless dinner party
designed to keep Trimble on board and swing the forthcoming referendum. The real power will not lie with any new Northern Ireland Assembly but with the
CroBIEPs which will gradually assimilate or ‘harmonise’ Ulster further into and all-island context. As the Dublin foreign minister David Andrews put
it, these CroBIEPs would function ‘not unlike a government’ - a government that would ride roughshod over the wishes of the Ulster people. No formal
consent will be required from the Ulster people for this gradual process of ‘harmonisation’. Ulster’s future as a distinct entity is definitely under