Walls that divide: 20 years after IRA declared military cessation Executive parties are further from political ceasefire than ever
On September 2, 1994, just two days after the Provisional IRA had announced a "complete cessation of military operations", an opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph indicated that 56% believed the ceasefire was the result of a 'secret deal having been done'.
Only 30% believed that the ceasefire was permanent.
Eighteen months later, on February 9, 1996, the ceasefire ended with a massive bomb at Canary Wharf. That bomb confirmed the belief of those who had argued that the original ceasefire had been a mere tactical ploy by both the IRA and Sinn Fein.
And yet on July 19, 1997, PIRA announced another "complete cessation of military operations", paving the way for Sinn Fein to sign up to the Mitchell Principles (six ground rules that included the disarmament of paramilitary organisations and a verifiable process of decommissioning) and enter the talks process.
Ceasefires are the vital component of any peace process and for the subsequent political/constitutional negotiation between opposing paramilitary spokespeople and political parties. Those who aren't convinced of the integrity of a ceasefire will not participate – which is why both the DUP and Robert McCartney's UKUP left the process.
The 1997 ceasefire was also the final collective admission by the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries and the various security/intelligence services (also, to a lesser extent, by most of the political parties) that this was an unwinnable war. There would be no clear winner, no stunning victory: the best they could hope for was some sort of deal they could all underwrite and promote as a 'this is as good as it gets' agreement.
But 'as good as it gets' turned out to be 'constructive ambiguity' followed by a destructive clarity, and then a nakedly sectarian us-and-them carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Fein in May 2007.
Which is where we stand now: more polarised than ever and, if opinion polls, pundits and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, more suspicious, intolerant and distrustful of 'themmuns' than ever before. Ironically, even those who hate the us-and-them approach to politics here seem to have just as much contempt for those who choose to vote for us-and-them parties.
So, why are we in this mess? How did the hoped-for conflict resolution morph into seemingly terminal conflict stalemate? What happened to the hope? What happened to the dare-to-believe-it-can-be-different moment on May 22, 1998, when 71% of us (on an 81% turnout) voted 'Yes' for the Belfast Agreement?
Well, it seems to me that there are two aspects to a ceasefire. The first is the obvious one – those with guns stop shooting each other. The second is less obvious, yet much more important in the long run – the political leadership of the various parties stop continuing the conflict by other, albeit less deadly, methods.
In other words, you need to start to look for the things that can bind you together in a common, shared future, rather than reminding each other of old wounds and horrors, some of them pre-dating the birth of any MLA or MP.
It means asking themselves why they agreed to set up new political institutions in the first place. What we have now is an Assembly, Executive, Programme for Government and machinery for doing business together that is the result of negotiation between all of the parties in that Executive.
They are in the Assembly by choice and in the Executive by choice. They have agreed to govern Northern Ireland. They have agreed to take responsibility for particular departments. The problem they have, though – and it's a problem that is making a mockery of what they think is government and casting them collectively as thoroughgoing hypocrites – is that they haven't yet negotiated, let alone declared, a political ceasefire between themselves. It is hard, almost impossible, indeed, to avoid the conclusion that the key players despise each other. This is conflict by other means – warring camps who circle each other and do each other down at every opportunity.
In fairness, there is no need for political parties to like each other. There is no requirement for coalition partners to like each other – they play the cards that the electorate has dealt them.
But there is a requirement that they agree upon the rules of the game, including courtesy and etiquette. There is a requirement that there be a sense of collective responsibility and accountability. There is a requirement that they will, at the very least, try to deliver on the big ticket issues.
Let's face it, when just about every Executive member and party leader tries to grab a piece of the 'Rory glory', you know they're doing it because they've damn little else to shout about.
Now, then, here's the question that really needs answered: is there any electoral incentive for the political parties to agree a ceasefire? In other words, would they, collectively, be able to attract back old voters and win over new ones if they demonstrated the willingness and the ability to work together and govern together?
At this stage the answer would appear to be 'no'. The electoral evidence since 1998 indicates that the vast majority of those who do vote are voting for clearly defined unionist and republican parties.
Alliance is still in single-figure support, NI21 crashed and burned (and a poll weeks before its spectacular eve-of-election meltdown suggested its level of support had halved since its launch) and the political middle ground is still barren territory. The 'military' ceasefire came about because enough people accepted that a solution wasn't available that way.
A 'political' ceasefire would now require them to acknowledge that the present chaos could, more quickly than they imagine, result in the collapse of the institutions. But here's the bigger problem – at the heart of the political process remains the 'dreary steeples' reality that unionists and republicans still want different things.
Agreement – in the sense of both sides buying into the same settlement – seems impossible. Genuine co-operation is impossible. A political ceasefire is, I think, impossible, because this is still a battlefield.
In most senses, what we have is 'as good as it gets', or 'as good as it's going to get'. We may not be killing each other anymore, but we certainly don't care for each other any more than we did, either.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator