It was one of those events where many will remember where they were or what they were doing. In 1994 I was a teenager living in a community whereby British Army raids were the norm, armed soldiers patrolled the streets, members of Republican paramilitaries were operating within the community, the daily media coverage of shootings and killings and breaking news stories seemed to happen all too regularly. But, what was wrong with this? This was daily life in the North of Ireland. In my youth nothing seemed out of the ordinary; if anything, I was living through a history I knew little about, yet subconsciously was fascinated and hooked. Looking back now I find it hard to comprehend the situation we found ourselves in, communities gripped by fear of what next? What is unique is how far we have come since that turbulent period. I recall a breaking news story on that day, 31st August 1994, whereby the PIRA declared a “complete cessation of military operations.” Questions needed answering. What was a ceasefire? What did this mean? How would this affect me? What did it mean for the community I lived in? I recall vividly people celebrating in the streets as calls of “the war is over” were heard. The word “peace” was mentioned, a word that wasn’t often communicated (apart from my father’s lunch, a piece). Twenty years is a long time, it has gone very quickly. Life has moved on, as has politics. But is the divided society we live in now struggling to find common ground to allow for the full transformation from violence to peace to a workable solution?
I recently attended a debate on the 1994 Ceasefires as part of the Féile an Phobail programme. Journalists Eamonn Mallie, Brian Rowan and Charlie Bird gave a compelling insight into their recollection of the 1994 Ceasefires. Each account as engrossing as the other and compounded by the tension and historical nature of the time. As each journalist recounted their memories with occasional lapses of humor, I often thought of the naivety of life for me in 1994. A few thoughts came into my head. What if 1994 did not happen? Where would we be today? Where are we going? Since this significant moment I have followed closely the long journey from violence to conflict transformation, a fascinating journey that 20 years ago looked unimaginable.
As the intriguing debate was drawing to a close, one comment made by Brian Rowan stifled me: “Unionism is feeling vulnerable and, I think, there are occasions such as the period we’re in, when republicans still need to think about what they are doing and about what they could do to convince senior unionists and loyalists that they are genuinely serious about a peace process, about a shared future and about shared space.” As I left the debate the words “genuinely serious about the peace process” resonated in my head.
As we find ourselves entering a period of great challenge and political stagnation I would like to challenge the assertion of Brian and examine the 20 years on from the Ceasefires in a critical sense. Firstly, I agree with Brian that Unionists finds themselves in a vulnerable position. As the Union remains safe for the foreseeable future, Unionists seem to have a genuine fear and paranoia about the rise of republicanism across the island. They don’t display the swagger and political confidence of a bygone era. Perhaps change has happened too quickly? Political Unionism seem to have fears about their own political inabilities and “defiant insecurities.” (Dr Hayward). Political Unionism currently finds itself in a political cul-de-sac as they face an identity crisis. The time for soul-searching has come. The mythical slogan of “cultural war “ has now been replaced by the very much undefined “graduated response” illustrating reactionary politics, an inability to lead, inspire or give direction. A political force that is being led and not leading, a force that struggles to find common ground with a disillusioned electorate and as stated recently “dancing to the Orange Order tune … and influence of Loyalist paramilitaries.” The DUP in particular prefer to represent the interest of themselves, leaving behind their electorate, leaving them leaderless, leaving them often confused. As the Peace Process has evolved from the momentous ceasefires of 1994, who more than anyone else has illustrated that they are “genuinely serious about a peace process, about a shared future and about shared space?” Without a doubt the evidence illustrates that republicans have. Republican’s have clearly made ground-breaking gestures designed to stimulate and move the process forward. The PIRA statement of 1994 talked about the need to “enhance the democratic process and underlying our definitive commitment to its success.” Republicans have honoured this and are still carrying it through. But, in reality what gestures have Political Unionism reciprocated with?
Republicans have negotiated and compromised often beyond their constraints. Republicans have crossed boundaries, made bold and difficult moves whilst simultaneously trying to reach across the divide. Republicans have made big initiatives work, often breathing life into a process that on occasion looked dead. Precondition after precondition, Republicans have delivered, on many occasions to the shock and despair of Political Unionism. Why? They want the Peace Process to work; they want to build a shared future; they want to agree a shared space. Surely, this is being made difficult as Unionism slowly moves to the right and engages in “old style” “playground politics” of not wanting to talk. Simultaneously, they now have a threat within the Unionist “family”, namely from the TUV. What better way to beat the TUV than try and act like them? I listened to Martin McGuinness recently at a separate event of the Féile an Phobail. His commitment and dedication to the Peace process and building a shared future was very apparent. Republicans have a strategy. As he rightly said, you don’t often hear Political Unionism commending or speaking favorably about the Peace Process and as far as I see, it’s not too often you see them making substantive attempts to push (or nudge) it forward. The question remains, why? Surely the Peace Process is what they want! Republicans find themselves where they are today because they want to be there, Political Unionism are there because they have to be.
Haass was an ideal opportunity to ascertain how far Political Unionism has come and how serious they are about the Peace Process and building a shared future. They failed to deliver. Flags and parades are more a priority. Regardless of what Republicans do, it will never be enough for Unionists. Political Unionism were in hysterics when Republicans were bombing and shooting, yet the same mentality is still there when Republicans play the rules within the remit of democracy. Political Unionism’s game of looking (with a tainted view) and walking backwards, ignoring what is in front has stagnated the Peace Process and in effect stalled the progress of the institutions. It’s making the north unworkable and untenable. The only people who can move Unionism are a progressive element within the Unionist community. There are many disenfranchised and disenchanted Unionists who want progress and are frustrated with their political representatives. Their voice needs to be heard, instead of the voice of protest Unionists such as the ‘fleg protestors” and those occupying “camp Twaddel” who care more about showboating up the Crumlin Road and symbolism than building a future. This attack on their culture is continually whipped up by Political Unionism; this defeatist attitude is no more than delusional politics.
I genuinely cannot see how Republicans could offer much more as Brian suggests. At the Hunger Strike commemoration in Derrylin on Sunday, Gerry Adams talked about making friends with “our unionist neighbors,” and moving forward with Unionists.” This seems to be the Republican agenda and vision. I’ve yet to hear Political Unionism make any such remark about reconciling and moving forward with Republicanism. Political Unionism finds itself in an uncomfortable place, looking for the nearest exit. But is Political Unionism capable of stepping beyond their traditional tribal boundary? Political Unionism as a reactionary and rejectionist force seem to have no coherent or plausible strategy to engage in acts of reconciliation. They are driven by a variety of elements within their own society yet at the same time are so disjointed. Political Unionism still consider Republicans as their enemy, when they should be working with them towards a common shared goal of delivering good and effective government. Is it naive of me to think this way? I believe Political Unionism must make the next move, (although I know realistically they won’t) ; they must stretch beyond their limitations and illustrate their commitment to the Peace Process and building a shared future. Constantly bringing up the past, refusing to compromise and engage will never build a future.
Last week I listened to Colin Parry whose son Tim was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993. Colin and Wendy Parry are an inspiration, a beacon of hope. If they can find positivity from such a negative moment in their life, why can’t others use their example and learn from it? Colin admitted having little contact with Political Unionism. Maybe a starting point for Political Unionism would be to engage with people like Colin and Wendy, listen to their story and their journey towards reconciliation, taking detailed notes. As the political vacuum fills by the day it would be a shame if the momentum of the last 20 years ground to a halt, preventing the continuation of the Peace Process, the building a shared future and shared space.
It is now time political Unionism reciprocate to illustrate their commitment to the Peace Process. Political Unionism must put their heads about the parapet, and instead of being led, must lead and demonstrate political maturity. We have come a long way into a better place, but can we go any further? It’s over to you Political Unionism. John Major stated in 1994 after the IRA Ceasefire “We are beyond the beginning but we are not yet in sight of the end.” This same statement is very much alive today as it was in 1994 …