A Word From Belfast

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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In Northern Ireland, as in many conflict zones, the outline of a final peace settlement is clear. When we are collectively ready for it, a group of well-meaning old enemies will work it out on the back of a postcard over lunch.

A peace process is a corrupting and hypocritical business. It falls between two untenable options, being less bloody than war and less civilized than ordinary, stable, combative, democratic politics. Peace processing is what you do when you can do none of the above, when you don’t want violence, when you can’t function politically and when you’re not ready to settle terms. Peace processing is war by other means. It is conflictual politics through which parties seek not resolution, but advantage.

That is the lesson of Northern Ireland. And that is what you should expect from Israelis and Palestinians, if your vision isn’t cluttered by giddy, quasi-spiritual enthusiasm.

Ten years ago we had many people dancing with glee at a supposed spiritual transformation here.

Love had overcome hate, they said. Nothing of the kind happened.

Old enemies had started to trust each other, they said. No they hadn’t, and they still don’t.

This trawling for signs of forgiveness had started even before the violence stopped. A favorite newspaper story: Man/woman forgives the killers of his/her father/mother/son/daughter. Journalists were almost more keen to report an outbreak of forgiveness than an explosion on the street.

People said that peace had become possible because the old warlords had aged and now had teenage children of their own. The government played public service ads on television in which an old gunman coming out of prison is appalled to see his son now a paramilitary, too. We thought that those ads were aimed at the gunmen themselves, to show them the future they were creating. They weren’t.

The ads were aimed at the rest of us, to persuade us that a change of heart was possible in the armed groups — a change for which there was no evidence other than the word of mediators who were often naive religious enthusiasts, or community activists who stood a good chance of getting government funding for peace-making endeavors if they could show they were working.

The armed groups still occasionally kill people and rob them. Compassion doesn’t stop them, but they are curtailed to a degree by political pragmatism. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in particular has hammed up to the loving side of peace making. It’s all crud. If biting the legs of kittens were a better way to get votes, he would do that instead.

So what’s the point of a peace process?

Well, peace, of course. It is a political contest in which fewer people get killed.

The parties in Northern Ireland entered the peace process hesitatingly and determined to undermine each other. In talks they have played not for completion of the process, but for deferral of what it requires from them. They have played it to the breaking point in every round of supposedly final crisis talks, always trying to shift the blame for failure onto each other.

The pro-British Ulster Unionist Party tried to force the complete disarmament of the Irish Republican Army. This proved to be a bad strategy because, in a divided society, antagonistic behavior always plays better at the polls. As the Ulster Unionists got angrier about the IRA refusing to disarm, more Irish nationalists voted for the IRA’s ally, Sinn Fein, than for the moderate Social Democratic Labour Party — which had, in fact, designed the peace process. They saw Sinn Fein as the party best able to make Unionists lose their tempers. The Social Democratic Labour Party became invisible to voters because it wasn’t making trouble. Sinn Fein played for the fragmentation of its enemies, the erosion of its rivals and the growth of its own vote — and it worked. On the Unionist side, the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Bible-bashing Rev. Ian Paisley, played to an electorate that wanted to punish Sinn Fein.

The peace process, in short, favors hard-line parties over genuinely conciliatory ones. The whole process has become about power, rather than about the completion of its stated objective: a political settlement. A negotiated settlement, after all, would remove the very issues that generate support for the parties engaged in the process.

As you read this, the Northern Ireland peace process is nearing collapse. The Republicans robbed a bank, and no one trusts them even minimally. In their hurt dignity, the Republicans express surprise. And so they ought: Robbing banks has always been just one of the things they do. But they stole so much that they have strayed beyond the safe limits permitted by the game of peace processing, and might very well have wrecked the game altogether.

What are the governments doing about it? They are trying to restore the stability of the game. They have been meeting with the party of the robbers to see how they can get the process back on track.

Peace processing is our politics now, and no one has any better ideas of what to do. That was inevitable. No country would embrace a peace process if it had an alternative.

My advice to readers in other situations about which I might not know much: recognize that once the game is on, all parties will want to stay in. And make sure to use the process to press everyone to behave. That’s where we slipped up. We had no discipline in our process, and we might have learned too late the need for it.

And if the long game means that you never resolve your differences, and you’re still talking about core issues of division 20 years from now, well, maybe that’s for the best. Recognize that peace processing is a game, and play it hard. Resist all appeals for forgiveness and compassion. You really hate those people on the other side of the table. That’s okay. They hate you too.

Malachi O’Doherty, a political columnist for the Belfast Telegraph, is author of “I Was a Teenage Catholic” (Marino, 2003).

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