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The Tightrope

(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 Belfast.

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 threat.




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