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Political structures hanging by thread

Published 28/07/2015

The Queen shakes hands with Deputy 2005 First Minister Martin McGuinness watched by First Minister Peter Robinson in 2012
The Queen shakes hands with Deputy 2005 First Minister Martin McGuinness watched by First Minister Peter Robinson in 2012
The Docklands bomb in 1996
A CCTV image of a white van used by the Northern Bank raiders in 2004
IRA victim Robert McCartney with his son Coneald

It is 10 years since the IRA statement that its 'war' was finally over. But, in spite of breakthrough moments like the Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, an air of crisis hangs over the devolved institutions. Should we really be surprised, asks Brian Rowan.

Perhaps the words of the former Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan are intended to introduce some reality into the discussion and the debate. Speaking 10 years after the statement that formally ended the IRA's armed campaign, Mr Sheridan believes it could take 25 years "to normalise community and political relationships".

"It won't happen just through goodwill," he says. "It has to be nurtured and constructed."

Mr Sheridan is now chief executive of the peace-building organisation Co-operation Ireland. And he helped create the occasion in the Lyric Theatre in 2012 when Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness shook hands for the first time.

For him, this was proof, or evidence, that the words of 2005 were meant - that the IRA "war" was really over.

And, a decade later, this is how he remembers that July day 10 years ago when the IRA leadership ordered an end to the armed campaign and told its organisation to dump arms.

"There would have been a sense of elation on one hand, but scepticism on the other. The actions would be more important than the words and the acts do start to stack up," he says.

"Such as the meeting between the Queen and Martin McGuinness - the ordinariness of it, even though they weren't ordinary people.

"The courage of Her Majesty the Queen reaching out that hand of reconciliation and the courage of Martin McGuinness to also reach out to take it."

Today, he sees no threat from the mainstream IRA: "I think for that group of republicans it's over; the violent phase is over."

But he is concerned about today's politics; Stormont's uncertain future as the fight continues over welfare reform and wider cuts.

Before leaving on a visit to the United States, Mr McGuinness described the situation as "extremely grave".

"Nobody knows what the dangers of all of this are," Mr Sheridan adds. "This is uncharted water. It behoves politicians to find a way through."

Someone else who has watched the IRA transition is the former Stormont Speaker Lord John Alderdice, who became part of an Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). It was tasked with tracking that transition from war to peace, aided by detailed intelligence briefings.

Today, Lord Alderdice is also concerned about the deteriorating situation up on the political hill.

"Politics in Northern Ireland is not in a good place," he says. "The well-worn path of agreement without delivery, and demanding power without accepting responsibility, finds implementation almost completely stalled. Greece is a living example of what happens when leaders refuse to compromise with political and economic reality.

"It is entirely legitimate to disagree, but it is unacceptable to bring down the political institutions because you don't get your own way."

Last Friday, the Stomont House Agreement implementation group met, but there is nothing like a packed diary of meeting between now and September. And there are concerns about the lack of urgency. So, 10 years after that IRA "endgame" statement, these are the political concerns.

Mr Sheridan and Lord Alderdice watched the first ceasefire delivered in 1994; watched it crumble in the Docklands bomb in 1996. It was restored in July the following year and, by April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement had become the new political roadmap.

"The whole process took a lot longer than anyone expected, and at every stage," Lord Alderdice adds. "The British Government got stuck over decommissioning.

"Republicans were acutely sensitive to the possibilities of a major and violent split - and unionists took a long time to recognise that bringing down previous initiatives only meant they had to go further this time.

"Even my IMC colleagues took up their posts with the expectation of only a couple of years' commitment. In the event, it was more than three times longer."

Those early decommissioning battles were fought when David Trimble was Ulster Unionist leader. But Lord Alderdice believes the problems were bigger than that delay that came to be captured in the phrase: no guns, no government.

"It wasn't just a problem of time and waiting, though that was difficult," adds Lord Alderdice. "Some of David Trimble's problems came from his own difficulties in bringing his party and community along with him and some came from Tony Blair being unrealistic about what the unionist community could accept." By 2005, Mr Trimble was no longer the principal unionist leader. The political focus had switched to the possibility of a once-unthinkable agreement between republicans and the DUP; to the prospect of a Paisley and McGuinness-led Executive.

But a long, arm's-length negotiation that stretched through many months of 2004 failed on demands for photographic proof of decommissioning and a Paisley speech demanding that republicans wear sackcloth and ashes.

There were fears that the IRA could return to war; and the political process plunged into deeper crisis when the IRA was linked to the multi-million-pound Northern Bank robbery and then the killing of Belfast man Robert McCartney in a street stabbing.

But out of the darkness of that time, new light came in a speech by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. It was delivered on April 6, 2005 under the heading, "An Address to the IRA".

Its key sentences read: "Can you take courageous initiatives, which will achieve your aims by purely political and democratic activity? I know full well that such truly historic decisions can only be taken in the aftermath of intense internal consultation. I ask that you initiate this as quickly as possible."

This was the speech that began to turn the corner; an address that was about moving the IRA towards that statement that would eventually be delivered on July 28. That statement ordered the end of the armed campaign, ordered arms to be dumped and signalled the steps to the next and most significant acts of decommissioning witnessed by churchmen Fr Alec Reid and the Rev Harold Good.

The IRA did not decommission its entire arsenal - nor did the loyalist organisations. There is no such thing as a perfect transition from war to peace.

Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness took the vast bulk of republicans with them in that new direction. The Paisley-McGuinness Executive became a reality.

But, 10 years on from July 2005, there are still dangers posed by the dissident republican organisations; although they have not been able to recreate anything like the tempo and threat posed during the IRA campaign.

The IRA war is over and today's concern is about the political structures at Stormont, which, according to the most senior republican leaders, hang by a thread. Given Mr Sheridan's analysis that it will take 25 years to normalise political and community relationships, should we be surprised?

Belfast Telegraph

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