Breakdown has been perennially forecast in the Northern Ireland peace process, and has never – since the Belfast, or Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 – happened. The crises have been patched over. When one structure of meetings failed to work, another was invented. Most recently, George Mitchell, the perennial broker of peace in the province, succeeded in getting enough agreement between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein to allow the Northern Ireland Executive to grind into the nervy life it now has.
If there has never been a breakdown, there hasn’t been a breakthrough, either. Breakdown, it is always said by the government and the parties, is inconceivable. But breakthrough, to the stable functioning of a devolved assembly in which all the parties agree to the fundamental rules of the game, appears unattainable.
There are two obstacles. The first is the republican movement, which is facing its destiny, and is split about what to do with it. It simply cannot decide whether or not to accept the rules of the democratic game, whether or not to abandon its sense of mission and historical destiny for a reliance on mere votes. Those who claim to know the organisation best say there is an increasingly unambiguous struggle going on between the “democrats” – mainly Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and Martin McGuinness, now education minister – and the hardliners, led by Brian Keenan, the dominant military figure on the Army Council.
Such struggles have the clarity of bears fighting under a rug; but the few observable signs are not encouraging. Keenan is now believed to be taking a direct interest in the conversations with General John de Chastelaine on arms decommissioning – a move that certainly would indicate an intransigent line, since Keenan has said weapons will never be surrendered. Adams has referred to a “management problem” in the Sinn Fein and IRA leaderships. A recruiting advertisement in the Sinn Fein paper An Phoblacht states that “Sinn Fein is dedicated to forcing British withdrawal from the occupied Six Counties”. So most people now expect that, when de Chastelaine shortly issues a report, he will have to say there has been little progress on decommissioning.
The second obstacle is the unionists, who are also facing their destiny. They, with as much pain and more splits than the republicans, contemplate a world in which power is shared with enemies – and in which it may pass from them forever. It is the end of an era for them, too – and ends of eras do not come easy.
The conflict in Northern Ireland is routinely said by people in the rest of the UK to be incomprehensible, atavistic. In fact, it is usually clear enough. Two competing political-religious groups claim hegemony over the same territory – the Protestant/unionists on democratic-majoritarian grounds, the Catholics/republicans on grounds of historical right. Since there are two claims for the same territory and since they are claimed on mutually incompatible grounds, there can logically be no settlement to the old quarrel.
The genius of the Belfast Agreement was that it did not attempt to unravel – nor to take an axe to – the Gordian knot. It simply bypassed it, leaving it tied. Unionists could believe in the Union, nationalists in eventual Irish unity, republicans in more rapid unity with socialism thrown in. The constraints were that they all had to work together, and that they had to do so democratically. The working-together constraint was immediately irksome for the unionists, who saw murderers released and the terrorist commanders in the leadership of the province. But the democratic constraint is, in the longer term, more irksome for republicanism: it means there can be no private armies. Which means, essentially, no IRA.
The man who has to deal with this fundamental impasse has a reputation as a political master. But Peter Mandelson has yet to face a real battle as Northern Ireland Secretary. His predecessor, Mo Mowlam – now an apparently unhappy Cabinet Office minister – steered republicanism through its jitters by embracing its less threatening activists and refusing to regard it as being in breach of ceasefires, in spite of evidence that it was. Her many supporters believe it was a necessary piece of hypocrisy for which history will not just forgive, but praise her.
Mandelson came with a different mandate: to reassure the unionists. How, wondered one senior official to his face, did he think straight-talking Ulster folk would take to the country’s Machiavelli? Mandelson gave no answer, but the unionists did: they liked him. He was harsher on Sinn Fein; more respectful of the unionist community’s household gods; typically clever in arranging a George Cross as a corporate award for the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He both admired and got on with David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader.
This has allowed Mandelson to hold Unionist feet to the flames – in a way that would probably have precipitated a walkout had Mowlam still been in office. He said he would implement most of the reforms proposed by Chris Patten for the RUC – including changing the name to the Northern Ireland Police Service, a neuralgic issue for unionists. Trimble pleaded with him not to do it; but Mandelson insisted, and drew angry denunciation from Trimble in the Commons. It was an end to a honeymoon, but not the beginning of hostilities; Trimble privately sees that it has left the IRA with no place to hide.
On 31 January, de Chastelaine is due to report. Trimble must face another Unionist council meeting on 12 February. He has already said he will resign as First Minister if no decommissioning has taken place by then. He managed to convince his party council to back the formation of the executive with 58 per cent of the votes – but he thinks he is scoring well under 50 per cent now, after the RUC name change. He also believes, however, that Mandelson will not push him back into defeat at the hands of his council: that, instead, he will use his powers to suspend the operation of the executive and return, at least temporarily, to direct rule.
That really would be breakdown – though not necessarily complete. The executive has worked surprisingly well. Ministers – apart from the two from the Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley – thrash out inter-departmental problems and discuss budgets. The meetings are sometimes five hours or more – far longer than those of Tony Blair’s cabinet. Barbara de Bruin, the Sinn Fein health minister, refused to fly the Union Jack over her ministry and has argued fiercely against accepting the judgements of a new Food Standards Agency, saying the province needs a separate one. But such stands have not caused more than hard words.
So there would be much to lose from a breakdown. But if the ruling part of unionism has been willing to jettison its historical posture, republicanism has yet to follow suit. It may still do so; the IRA specialises in adamantine positions suddenly being turned on their head. But few expect it. Trimble has gone to the limit: in a sense, he is operating beyond it. Gerry Adams may also have reached his: the “management problem” may simply be insoluble, at least by him.
It is a job for a political master, a Machiavelli among the Ulster folk. It is the test of big politics in Britain: cruel, but inevitable. The music is about to stop. When it does, the parcel will be in Mandelson’s hands.