Don't be proud of the peace process

The discovery that Sinn Fein has been collecting information that could be used for military purposes has a grim inevitability about it. The belief that Sinn Fein and the IRA would give up the habits of a lifetime in just a few years was always a delusion. Engagement with the peace process is just another tool in the long campaign for Irish unity, not a principled decision in favour of democracy. The IRA is no more likely to "renounce" violence, give up its arms and stop collecting intelligence than are the British and American military. As Peter Mandelson, the former Northern Ireland secretary, has suggested, it would be more logical for the IRA simply to dissolve itself - but that outcome, alas, is even less likely. London-based politicians and media commentators are apt to imagine that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness can break with their terrorist pasts as easily as Labour cabinet ministers break with their Trotskyist, communist or Bennite pasts, that there can be a new Sinn Fein in the sense that there is a new Labour. This is a profound misunderstanding. As Kevin Toolis writes in his profile of Sinn Fein (page 22), its leaders are unlike any others in the western political universe.

Sinn Fein/IRA gave up its military campaign because it wasn't working, not because of any repugnance. It entered the peace process from a position of military weakness, but in the knowledge that the British government was just as weak politically, having no stomach for a campaign against Irish terrorism that lasted a moment longer than was necessary. Neither side had any real alternative. And neither side has any reason for dissatisfaction with the outcome. The IRA has hundreds of members released from jail; it rules the streets in the Catholic areas of Belfast and Londonderry (just as the loyalist paramilitaries do in the Protestant areas); its political wing, once a marginal party, has become a major force on both sides of the border; its political leaders have at their disposal posh offices, limousines, civil servants and unlimited photo opportunities; sectarian loyalties have, if anything, been strengthened. New Labour can claim to have laid to rest a problem that had poisoned UK politics for more than a century; it has freed the streets of British cities and the homes of British political and military leaders from the threat of terrorist attack (from one source, at least); it has released army personnel and resources for use elsewhere.

All the two sides have to do now is wait for demography to finish its work, and for a majority in favour of Irish unity to emerge among the people of the province. Then they will have what both most desire: a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The unionists can only tag along, knowing that if they were deliberately to pull the plug on the peace process, it would give the British government an excuse to wash its hands of the matter sooner rather than later. Their slim hope is that, at some stage, the republicans shoot themselves (perhaps literally) in the foot or, more realistically, that some of them find the prospect of giving up British subsidy too much to bear.

Talk of IRA disarmament, therefore, is little more than window-dressing, the dignified bit in Ulster politics comparable to the dignified elements that Bagehot found in the British constitution. All the Daily Telegraph's huffing and puffing, all the protestations of Sinn Fein's innocence from its mainland sympathisers, all the de Chastelaines and Ramaphosas who are wheeled on to vouch for a few Armalites being sealed in a bunker are beside the point. The IRA will retain its arms until its goal is achieved (perhaps longer, as the political leaders of terrorist organisations tend to paranoia and are inclined to keep a private army on hand, just in case). The gun will continue to be a factor in the politics of Northern Ireland, just as it is in the politics of many African and Middle Eastern countries and, for that matter, in southern Italy. And the power-sharing executive will continue to face threats of imminent collapse, because taking up dramatic postures is what Ulster politicians do.

The peace process, with its fine words about the hand of history and so on, is often portrayed as a triumph for democracy and non-violence, and a cause for pride. It is nothing of the sort. It is a deft piece of realpolitik: an attempt to contain an apparently intractable conflict. It has left the urban working classes of Northern Ireland more at the mercy of the paramilitaries than ever, and it contains the tacit message that violence ultimately succeeds. To say this is not to suggest that British ministers had an alternative. It takes determination, patience and some ruthlessness to defeat political violence, and these are things that democracies do not always have.

Vote for the nice party

Has Theresa May, the Conservative Party chairman, found the answer? Will the Tories thrive if they rid themselves of their image as "the nasty party" and become, presumably, the nice party? Niceness seems an odd aspiration for a party that enjoyed 18 years in power by being extremely nasty to everyone. It seems even odder when you think that new Labour aspires constantly to nastiness, with its threats to lock up more criminals, expel more asylum-seekers, and plunge the Middle East into war. But her proposal could start a major political realignment. The old ideologies, and the old tribal and class loyalties, are dead. Party policies are confusing, because they apparently change with the seasons, and each party keeps stealing the other's clothes. We need a new political compass. Let politicians, therefore, organise themselves simply into nice and nasty parties. Readers may speculate for themselves on who fits where.

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Why George no longer loves Tony