There is an old adage: be careful what you wish for. Many unionists would like to have seen the IRA defeated 19 years ago, when the last ceasefire was announced. It didn’t happen. Likewise, many would like to see republicans wearing sack cloth and ashes. That isn’t going to happen either.
We are where we are and – imperfect though our peace is – we are in a much better place than a generation ago. Have we forgotten that only 17 years ago this month, 29 men, women and children, and two unborn babies, were killed in the worst atrocity of the Troubles, in Omagh?
The relative peace we enjoy didn’t materialise out of thin air. It had to be worked at.
The Chief Constable’s assessment last weekend that, while , the organisation was not on a "war footing" came as no surprise to the Secretary of State. It appears however to have astonished some unionist politicians. It also seems to have caught some nationalists by surprise and, at the same time, piqued senior republicans who had been adamant that the IRA had “left the stage” and “gone away”.
Republican assurances cut little ice now with the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt. That is hardly surprising.
What is hard to fathom, though, is unionist politicians’ lack of attention to some of the Chief Constable’s other ‘clarifications’: that the Provisional IRA is “committed to following a political path”; that it is “no longer engaged in terrorism”; that the IRA “does not exist for paramilitary purposes”.
Moreover, the Sinn Féin president could hardly have been more forthright in his condemnation of whoever shot Kevin McGuigan dead. They were “criminals”, Gerry Adams suggested – in language he would never have used of IRA members.
Surely such statements should be a source of relief, if not necessarily a cause for celebration? Instead, we see unionists of various hues searching high and low for an allegation, a word, a nuance – anything that might justify withdrawal from the power-sharing government.
Imagine for a moment that the IRA had gone away – completely, and to unionists’ satisfaction – in 1996. What do people believe would have happened? Where would IRA members have gone? Would they have kept faith with a political process which has left everyone feeling short-changed?
Conflict resolution and peace-building are complicated, especially when there is no clear ‘winner’. We need look no farther back than a recent war in the Middle East where – following Iraq’s defeat – the precipitate dismantling of military, police and governance institutions led to anarchy and chaos. Peace processes have to be managed.
The last thing Northern Ireland needed in 1996 – or indeed needs now – is hundreds of highly committed, highly trained former IRA members seeking some outlet, other than a peaceful one, for their disaffection. How, other than with some lingering infrastructure – a command chain of sorts – can former combatants be kept ‘on message’ and ‘onside’?
The late Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, captured mid-seventies Northern Ireland brilliantly, in his poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’:
“O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,
Where tongues lie coiled as under flames lie wicks”.
Heaney’s words seem as relevant today as they did forty years ago.
No one likes doing ‘nod-and-wink’ politics but, in the real world, there is a chasmic difference between politicking and realpolitik. Had it not been for ‘back channels’ and secret contacts between previous governments and the IRA we would all still be stuck in a morass of violence. The supposed naivete of some politicians nowadays is truly breath-taking.
When the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains liaised with intermediaries, who did people think those intermediaries were talking to? Why would any IRA volunteer – former or current – risk imprisonment in cooperating with the search for the Disappeared other than on foot of an order?
Nineteen years after the last IRA ceasefire and seventeen after the Good Friday Agreement, we still have no sense that our political institutions have taken root or confidence that the peace will endure.
It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see whether the DUP will follow the UUP’s lead by leaving the Executive, how the SDLP will respond (although it’s difficult to envisage them ignoring the ‘positives’ in the Chief Constable’s assessment), and who lines up alongside the Ulster Unionists in any new ‘Opposition’.
The people who will be most satisfied with the latest developments will be the TUV and republican dissidents, both of whom will be able to say, “We told you so.”
Mike Nesbitt was shrewd enough to secure the unanimous support of his MLA Group, the party’s one MEP and two MPs for today’s move, as well as of senior representatives of his Councillors’ Association and the party chairman. His initiative has undoubtedly wrong-footed the DUP.
But, how wise is his gambit, when viewed strategically? Mr Nesbitt insists today’s move is a principled one, in response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Nationalists and republicans have scented hypocrisy, though, pointing to the differing ways he treats republican and loyalist representatives who have been linked to groups implicated in murders.
The Ulster Unionist leader says he believes the situation “can be fixed” but for that to happen requires “some clarity about the IRA and its command structure”. Clarity from whom – the PSNI, Sinn Féin, the IRA? And in what form – a statement, a gesture, sack cloth and ashes?
The Secretary of State now has a big call to make. Tomorrow the DUP will remind her of the “responsibilities she has to punish any party that is found to be in breach of their commitments to exclusively peaceful and democratic means”. Ms Villiers confirmed only two days ago that her “understanding” was very much in line with the Chief Constable’s (Mr Hamilton has already accepted the bona fides of the Sinn Féin leadership). She said she was satisfied for the moment that all parties in the Northern Ireland Executive were supportive of the principles of democracy and consent.
Northern Ireland is barren territory for politicians but fertile ground for poets. ‘Peace comes dropping slow’, WB Yeats wrote, in his most famous poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. We could not have imagined how slowly it would come here.
Be careful what you wish for.