The focus of efforts to save the peace process has now shifted to the forthcoming ‘package’ from the two Governments. Primary attention is being given to overcoming the four outstanding issues on the implementation of the Agreement: decommissioning; police reform; security normalisation, and the stability of the institutions. However, in order to build genuine peace and stability, it is necessary to have a much wider appreciation of the threats and problems with the Agreement.
When Alliance presented proposals to the two Governments at Weston Park, we did not focus on the immediate problems but identified the need for a comprehensive approach to address some of the fundamental challenges. Some of these relate to the nature of the process and the Agreement, others concern the failure of the process to tackle the persistent, and even deepening, divisions within Northern Ireland society.
Support for the Agreement, and in particular devolution, remains strong. However, opposition to it has increased and the degree of enthusiasm among its remaining supporters has waned. Three years ago the Agreement was created, presented and accepted as a win-win scenario for all sections of the community. Today, the dominant perception is that of zero-sum politics, with Nationalists ‘winning’ and Unionists ‘losing’ on almost every issue.
Continued bickering among politicians over the Agreement, and the failure of parties to deliver on commitments, has eroded support. Chief among these is decommissioning. Whatever Sinn Fein claims, there was a perception among all other parties – and the wider community – that in May last year the IRA gave a specific commitment to actual decommissioning. At the same time, the more Unionists have made decommissioning the ultimate test of Republican democratic credentials, the more Republicans have rachetted up the asking price.
Since the nominal ceasefires, the threats to the rule of law in Northern Ireland have expanded as paramilitaries have continued many of their old activities and diversified into new ones. There is a dangerous perception concerning a moral vacuum in the implementation of the Agreement, as many of these activities seem to continue with impunity.
Some of the seeds of the current crisis lie in the particular nature of the peace process, the Agreement itself and subsequent efforts to break the deadlock.
The notion of building a government across the broad centre, reaching out to the extremes, had guided virtually all previous peace initiatives, including Sunningdale. By contrast, the current process is characterised by the co-option of the extremes. This latter approach carries the advantage of consolidating ceasefires in conjunction with building cross-community political legitimacy. But it also has negative consequences that are now becoming more apparent, such as the entrenchment of the extremes at the expense of the broad political centre and the creation of a more rigid and inflexible form of power-sharing that can be easily held hostage by a well-organised group.
This enhanced polarisation of our politics was most dramatically demonstrated with June’s election results. This outcome has already destabilised the process, but if repeated in an Assembly election, it would risk making the version of power-sharing envisaged in the Agreement unsustainable.
While the politics of Northern Ireland have always been tribal in nature, the Agreement has institutionalised the notion of two separate but equal monolithic communities that must be managed. This is most clearly exhibited in the use of unionist and nationalist designations in the Assembly and the related voting system. This has entrenched politics as a form of inter-ethnic competition, in which the hardliners, those who claim to best defend the interests of the group against the other side, stand to capitalise.
One of the great paradoxes of the peace process has been while the intensity of the conflict may have moderated, divisions have become more starkly defined. Sectarianism, segregation and inter-communal violence remain major problems.
Skilful conflict management cannot be a long-term substitute for genuine conflict resolution. Unless these divisions are addressed, the Agreement will remain on weak foundations; separate communities can easily go their separate ways. The response of policy-makers must be to actively promote a shared, non-sectarian society.
This separation is manifest in attitudes to the Agreement. There is no shared ownership or understanding of the Agreement. Since the Agreement, there has been little or no effort placed on collective advocacy or defence of the Agreement. Rather than trying to understand and accommodate the concerns of each other, Unionists and Nationalists have pursued exclusivist demands.
‘Constructive ambiguity’ is being exposed as a double-edged sword. While it may be useful in allowing parties to agree a common form of words from different perspectives, if the words have different meanings, difficulties are inevitable with implementation. This problem is most commonly associated with the clauses on decommissioning, but extends to areas such as the constitutional status of Northern Ireland: Unionists believe that, in return for equality, Nationalists have accepted its position within the UK, while Nationalists see it in limbo, no longer fully part of the UK but not yet part of a united Ireland.
The situation has been further complicated by the various initiatives launched, understandings made, and statements issued in an effort to achieve the full implementation of the Agreement. Furthermore, the lack of transparency and collectivity has allowed parties to make claims and counter claims over what commitments have or have not been kept.
It remains unclear how the package from the two Governments will resolve these problems. History does not suggest that parties in Northern Ireland understand the term ‘take it or leave it’. We may expect a unanimous ‘yes, but…’ and further calls for clarification or opportunities for consultation with associates. Unless we can collectively recreate the atmosphere of Good Friday 1998, and seek to resolve, not manage, our divisions, the prospects are bleak.