As we write, in August, Harold Wilson’s affirmation that a week is a long time in politics is particularly apposite to the political situation in Northern Ireland. The previous month most people here were anxiously scanning the daily news bulletins for some sign that would lend hope that the province’s Armageddon might not be at hand.
Everywhere the awful word “Drumcree” was spoken: cautiously, in anger and in whispers.The holy men of the Orange Order had to placate their god by marching down the “Catholic” Gervaghy Road and through other areas where their opponents would be put under police curfew so that they should not be offended when the Orangemen reminded them, with salutary intent, that they had beaten them in other places in the past.
Gervaghy Road was particularly sensitive for it was here two years ago that a flushed David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had skipped a victory jig with the arch bigot Paisley when the police had forcefully cleared a path for the Orangemen. Now the word was out: there would be no Orange feet on the Gervagghy Road. But the echo said: stop us at your peril!
Mo Mowlam, the new Labour Secretary of State was the mainstay of the popular hope of deliverance. What she lacked in ability and aplomb was compensated for by tremendous energy as she visited Residents’ Groups, Orange Lodges, politicians, clergymen and the dogs in the street with the old, failed argument that we should all be reasonable.The Catholic nationalists were especially impressed, however; British Secretaries of State didn’t usually call around for tea and a chat and the anger of the Unionists at this newly-forged friendship seemed to clinch the Catholic belief that Mo would protect them.
In the event, Mowlam, in what the Catholics not unreasonably construed as an act of gross treachery, supported the Chief Constable of the RUC in sending in hundreds of armed police, expensively equipped for dealing with the violence which they initiated. With a viciousness equalling their violence of the previous year, they cleared the road for the Orangemen to go in triumph for the worship of their god. Ironically, the Catholic god had to do with a makeshift mass on the street because Mo and the RUC refused them permission to go to their church.
While sensible people with motor cars or the price of a boat or plane ticket were making their way across the Irish border or across the Channel, the fiery battalions of stone and petrol-bomb throwers were already retaliating. Within a few days the cost, in monetary terms, of the legacy of lunacy that motivated both the Orangemen and those opposing them was around £20 million which was within an ass’s whisper of the cost of the same religious outing in ’95 and ’96.
Twenty million deducted from the shrunken educational budget or the grossly under-funded NHS was an obvious matter for concern. Last year the offensively arrogant Sir Patrick Mayhew decided that additional “security” costs should be defrayed from the health and educational budgets—on the apparent assumption that youthful petrol-bombers would stop and think about the effect of their actions on their education. The real fear, however, was what the aftermath of Drumcree would lead to.
Would the IRA up the ante? Would the loyalist paramilitaries officially return to the killing game? The newspapers said people were hoarding essential supplies: the empty streets told the general fear.
Suddenly the Orange Order announced that its members would avoid those areas where its marches carried the greatest threat to the peace and a week later the IRA announced a cease-fire. It would have been comforting to think that both these organisations, neither of which is renowned for putting peace and the concern for human life before the historical fictions on which each bases its absurd posturings, had suddenly moved into the twentieth century; unfortunately, their subsequent “explanations” undermined any such optimism.
Unlike the Tories, the response of the Blair government to the IRA cease-fire has been swift and positive. The last government squandered the opportunity created by the earlier cease-fire because Major’s slim majority in the House of Commons left him hostage to the power of the Unionist parties at Westminster—and the Unionists opposed the idea of all-inclusive peace negotiations. Now the Unionists have lost their veto in the Commons and the British and Irish governments have made it clear that, if the IRA cease-fire holds, not only can Sinn Fein join the peace talks when they resume in September, but that, if those talks fail to come up with an agreed settlement before May of next year, the two governments will put their own joint settlement proposals to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum.
It appears like a no-win situation for the Unionists parties. Paisley, echoed by his understudy, Robinson, had already announced the intention of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party to pull out of the talks as has, also, the insignificant UK Unionist Party. The powerful Orange Order has asked the main Ulster Unionist Party to withdraw, too, but David Trimble, perhaps with a greater understanding of grassroots opinion, has indicated that the Ulster Unionists are likely to participate— though, as a public relations exercise they will probably insist that their public exchanges with Sinn Fein take the form of “proximity” talks.