Understanding The Peace Process

Following the Ealing bomb and the arrests of the three republicans in Columbia, right-wing commentators sought to extract concessions from Irish republicanism. With the declaration of ‘war against terrorism’ the clamour became deafening. As part of a strategm of blaming republicans for the failure of the Peace Process and to maximize perceived advantage David Trimble has today withdrawn the Ulster Unionist Party’s three members from the Six-County Executive.

But as A.Shaw argues, the anti-IRA elements on left and right are all ignoring one elementary fact – unionism has nowhere else to go.

"You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles" is a famous Sherlock Holmes quote. As in crime, as in politics, a truer understanding of the bigger picture can be found in the study of the small seemingly insignificant detail, the chance encounter, or the throwaway remark. Take for instance the Omagh bomb in 1998. It is not widely known, but the 700 pound car bomb left by the Real IRA, was parked directly and one must assume deliberately, outside the premises of a prominent Unionist, who had previously escaped attempts by the IRA to assassinate him on no less than - four previous occasions. A fairly obvious magnet for a bomb in Omagh one would have thought. The RUC evidently didn't think so. Neither did they act on the warning given, later putting their failure to to do so (as on many other occasions) to its 'imprecise nature'. So the RUC did not clear the area in the vicinity of the premises targeted, rather, it was more or less directly outside it ,the RUC instructed pedestrians to stand - for safety. Curiously, of the 29 people killed not one was a member of the RUC.

Then there was the incident, during the Drumcree standoff in July 1998, when quite by chance the BBC's Peter Taylor came across a most revealing encounter in a hotel foyer, featuring notorious UVF and MI5 assassin Billy Wright, and MP and soon to be UUP leader David Trimble. What to Taylor seemed most peculiar was not the so much the public nature of the meeting between the terrorist King Rat and his constituency MP Trimble, but the extraordinary body language of the men. Incredibly it appeared to Taylor, it was not Billy Wright but the - Nobel Peace Prize winning Q.C. - who was adopting the demeanor of deferential junior partner. A relationship, which when you think about it, could surely only exist if both were in agreement on the political fundamentals. In its own small way, it said a much as one needed to know about the prospects for the democratization of a six county statelet. Putting it bluntly, unionism and democracy are totally irreconcilable.

More recently, following the arrest of three republicans in Columbia, the ubiquitous 'security source' remarked that the arrests of the three alleged IRA members proved "the securocrats were right all along [and Blair wrong] on IRA intentions". Perhaps, but what that comment also unequivocally demonstrated is that at the very least, a significant section of the high command of the security services were, as republicans had long maintained, very seriously at odds with their political masters over the conduct, direction, and in truth the peace process itself.

An insight, that makes the revelations emerging about Omagh at least concievable. What so far has been established to the satisfaction of a Guardian investigation, is that the RUC were warned by a double agent within the Real IRA, working for RUC intelligence that 'something big was on' - a full two days before the bomb went off. This informant, using the name Kevin Fulton, even handed over the name and car number of the principle suspect. It is further suggested that yet - another- double agent working for another branch of the British war machine - actually constructed the bomb. Indeed the other agent may actually have been the suspect fingered by Fulton. "Preposterous" RUC chief Ronnie Flanagan said. "She hasn't a clue" former B special Ken, now Lord Maginness declared when Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan announced she was going to investigate the original claim. Almost to a man Ulster MP's denounced the proposed investigation as "absolutely scurrilous", a stance if adopted by anyone other than unionists would have had them screaming; "soft on terrorism", from the rooftops. Yet writing in Irish News on August 23 columnist Jude Collins states: "The first person I heard suggesting that the police knew about the Omagh bomb in advance was a unionist politician, a couple of years ago. It wasn't uncommon, he explained for the police or the army to let occasional attacks happen to protect police informers and agents. Shortly after, a nationalist politician and a second unionist politician confirmed this chilling view of security here. Muddies the good vs bad picture a bit doesn't it?"

More than a bit actually, as it opens up the possibility, that instead of just letting the occasional attack happen, the 'good guys' may also on occasion, in the best possible political taste of course, be tempted to set the odd ‘spectacular’ up.

Certainly it has never been adequately explained why the Real IRA would have targeted Omagh in the first place. For one thing the town is majority nationalist, with SF the biggest party on the local council. That in itself may have been provocation enough, as from the outset it was recognized in republican circles as an attack on the peace process, and the Republican leadership itself. One reason why when invited by British reporters to condemn the slaughter, to the media's surprise and no little disappointment, leading republicans did so with conviction and without caveat.

Adams had publicly stated, following a previous suspisciously timed explosion, that the bombers were working to a British securocrat agenda. Working to a securocrat agenda was of course the same as insisting the bombers were British agents per se.

Nevertheless, in a television interview in August, a ‘former’ British agent, using the name Michael Clarke indicated that a failure to stop the Omagh bomb maker points to a mole within the dissident grouping. "It makes perfect sense for the army or the intelligence services to allow the progress and delivery of a device of some nature to preserve and protect the safety of an agent he told Channel Four News. I believe that's possibly the case." The Republican News take on the same interview saw Clarke’s involvement as far more intimate: "nothing was done" about the Fulton warning because " he [Clarke] had warned British MOD that any action might jeopardize another undercover operative" (23.8.01)

Now the catalogue of collusion between Army, RUC, M15, and loyalists is lengthy and grisly. Few doubt for instance, Billy Wrights or Johnny Adairs links with the spooks. One commentator remarked that it was well known that the securocrats worked the UDA's C Company, which is controlled by Adair "like a foot pedal". Yet in a war against a common enemy, such realpolitik is hardly surprising

Except that up until the belated British recognition of the collapse of the UDA/LVF cease-fire there was supposedly - no war. It is ironically opposition to the peace process that has pulled the threads together. Today the Real IRA, the securocrats, and the UFF/LVF openly share a strategic enemy. And since the 1994 IRA cease-fire the same goal - the destruction of the SF sponsored peace process.

It is therefore not inconceivable that the manipulative relationship the UDA 'enjoys' with the security forces is matched by similar ‘sympathy’ for the absolutists on the other side of the divide. Even a south London street trader like Delboy would recognise the inherent logic: 'You know it makes sense Rodders'. If true, it would help explain the extraordinary coverage the Ealing bomb received. Here was a bomb that for a few days in August, almost rivaled the front-page news coverage of the World Trade Centre atrocity in September. Along with the screaming front-page headlines, there was of course the compulsory ‘expert’ analysis and editorial comment.

In an attempt to add some gravitas, 'Ealing could have been another Omagh' was much-used. Even the Sun broke with tradition and led with a political 'Bombers are Back!' headline. Over-reaching absurdly, RUC chief Ronnie Flanagan went as far as to claim the Real IRA was now more “impressive at this stage of its development” that the Provisional IRA had been in the early 1970's.

Then, gradually and discreetly, it trickled out that the Ealing bomb was nothing like Omagh. It was actually a tiny explosive charge, possibly as little as 5 kilos, making Omagh some 140 times bigger. Moreover the bulk of the Ealing bomb was made up, not of Semtex but - petrol. As a result there was no structural damage to the nearest buildings, nobody suffered ear damage as a result of the blast, and most significantly of all a man captured on a CCTV camera walking within yards of the explosion was not even blown off his feet.

Less partisan experts finally concluded that the timing and placement of the bomb was aimed solely at providing good quality footage for - the British media. And the media, presumably with a little encouragement, reciprocated. In any event from a Real IRA/Securocrat perspective 'Ealing' was a propaganda extravaganza. Understandably, the hype was enthusiastically, if a little inconsistently exploited by anti-GFA politicians of all shades. A line popular in the immediate aftermath, was to suggest that the bombing was triggered with the connivance of the SF/IRA thus breaching the cease-fire, while at the same time others were insisting that there was ‘little point negotiating with the Provos if the dissidents now enjoyed the greater capacity’.

To a refusenik, all were agreed that with terrorism at such 'a near all time high', any talk of reforming the RUC, much less demilitarisation would have to be put on hold. Boldly the UUP's Jeffrey Donaldson stated that what was needed now was - 'more troops not less!'

Hardly an encouragement to the IRA Army Council to make some gesture on decommissioning that the UUP, and in particularly Donaldson had been most vociferous in demanding only days before. When the IRA offer of August 8 was articulated, it was instantly rejected with Donaldson adding surreal pre-conditions. Any future decommisioning would need to be supervised by ‘responsible’ Unionist politicians including, he declared, himself.

Back in the real world, the London Evening Standard, a sister paper of the right-wing Daily Mail described the political situation as nothing less than "desperate". "Sinn Fein" it declared "was close to final victory which means the expulsion of the British from Northern Ireland." The IRA knows, it went on, "how empty are the Government's protestations of determination to see the struggle through, when in truth Mr. Blair would lead the British out tomorrow if he could."

Steadfastly defeatist, it further suggested Unionists "correctly perceive that once Ulster stops being a Protestant Statelet it is well down the track to becoming part of a united Ireland. The Unionists political assessment is hard to fault. Most decent people find it hard to take the spectacle of Sinn Fein and the IRA close to triumph. But that is where we now are." (9.8.2001)

Addressing the same theme in the Guardian the following day, Beatrix Campbell saw the possibility of the deal struck between London and Dublin in a similarly apocalyptic light. "Politically what it [the London-Dublin agreement] does - if the British government doesn't back off - is to position the British government where it never wanted to be: no longer the neutral broker trying to make the Paddies behave, but as a player in the past conflict, a subject as well as agent of change."

Being formally recognized as 'a player' would, if decommissioning continued to be regarded as a central Unionist demand, result in an equivalence being drawn not between the IRA and say the UFF as Unionists had always imagined, but would instead under the new dispensation, regard any trade off as a quid pro quo, between the two primary antagonists - the IRA and the British Army. An appalling vista sufficient to make even the most moderate Unionist gag.

As a representative of a beleaguered minority within Unionism, 'poor David' is kindly regarded in media circles as the epitome of moderation. But the evidence to support their judgment is scant. ‘Trimble the moderate’ has personally caused the institutions set up as part of GFA, and voted on, in what was effectively an all-Ireland referendum - to collapse - if the next impending deadline of November 3rd is included, on no less than four occassions in just over eighteen months. Too impatient to wait even for this deadline, Trimble has now totally retreated from a position of any power sharing with republicanism, returning the UUP along with the DUP to the absolutist position unionism held prior to the GFA, and in essence prior to 1969. What kind of democratic is that?

On the First Ministers own admission the current crisis can hardly be regarded as accidental or unforeseen either. Patently, it is all part of a Machiavellian plot to renegotiate the GFA on unionist terms. For in a letter circulated to the ruling Unionist body, before a key meeting convened almost a year to the day on October 27 2000, he outlined the strategy of which the essentials were, are; to create such a crisis, blame republicans, achieve suspension and tear up the Agreement.

In the letter Trimble pre-empted the events of the last few months since his resignation: "Tomorrow, I will outline a carefully considered response should republicanism continue to ignore its commitments of disarmament" he wrote. "The response is intended to increase pressure progressively on republican and nationalists. This might result in crisis for the Assembly and Executive. But if that arises we must do all we possibly can to place responsibility on republicans only in that way can suspension be achieved. Suspension is preferable to collapse, for it is the only way we can make progress afterwards."

Accordingly, when asked to comment just minutes after the IRA's unprecedented decommissioning offer of Augest 8, he reacted as if kicked: 'Yes, yes, that's all very well but there are other issues such as ...ahm ...policing...'

It would not take a detective of Sherlock Holmes acute observation to divine the glaringly obvious political cynicism behind the remark. If there was any doubt as to his lack of sincerity Trimble went one better on October 8 2001, when citing his abhorrence for all paramilitary weapons he enlisted the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party representatives, to table a motion calling for Sinn Fein (the biggest nationalist party) to be excluded due the a failure of the IRA to surrender its weapons! Clearly for 'Trimble the moderate' it is not republicans minus guns in the Executive, but the Executive minus republicans that remains the goal. For as all are aware and as the Evening Standard admitted unless the Six-Counties visibly remains a Protestant Statelet for a Protestant people, unionism is finished.

Understandably, the ground had to be prepared for the acceptance of a return to the demonisation and isolation of Republicanism. A shade too conveniently the FARC - IRA story presented the opportunity for the massed ranks of anti-Republicans to hit the ground running. The IRA were training the Colombians in exchange for drugs, both were working on a 'nuclear bomb' capable of 'vaporizing entire British cities', and perhaps more unbelievably, FARC were supposedly training the IRA on how to - make bombs!

In tandem every utterance of the Colombian regime, which has been condemned by Amnesty, Human Right Watch, and even the United Nations for its role in the formation of pro-state paramilitaries who have murdered thousands of opponents in the past decade, was treated as gospel. Of the Colombian arrests Trimble commented that republicans had "a mountain to climb" to regain the confidence of other parties. Since the World Trade Centre and the announcement of the ‘war against terrorism’ this metaphorical mountain has happily been identified to republicans as K2.

Of the repeated breaches in the UDA cease-fire, or the over 250 documented attacks by the UDA against Catholics in recent months, or the 15,000 UDA marching in military formation in mid-August, or of the civil rights symbolism surrounding the Holy Cross school, Trimble has made no comment. But then comment is unnecessary.

On the isolation front, the SDLP weighed in not once but twice; first demanding SF 'clarification' on Columbia, (even the language is imitative) and then lining up with Unionism in accepting the Pattenlite proposals on policing. Opportunist it maybe, but it could very well prove the last throw of the dice for the SDLP. The SDLP is an ageing party with an ageing constituency. It is something the resignation of Hume and Mallon will not correct. A recent study shows that of the 80,000 nationalists who have become voters since 1992 the vast majority, of all classes, voted SF. Having as it will have to, apologize for each and every RUC outrage from now on, the attempt to isolate republicanism can only hasten the Stoop Down Low Party's own isolation within nationalism. More bleakly for the 'stoops', despite the current impasses, events increasingly are being viewed from an all-Ireland perspective anyway. Which makes a political formation like the SDLP, restricted as it is to the Six Counties, look stale, out of touch, and anachronistic. And if this is true of the SDLP, Unionism stands equally exposed as anachronistic ideology, beached and friendless in the world.

Within SDLP calculations by embracing the RUC, it had hoped it would also lock itself into a concordat with the UPP. Which might have worked had Trimble ever been committed to the type of power sharing that democracy might demand, but unionism could not survive. So with that in mind, for the purposes of renegotiation, Trimble’s partner of choice is far more likely to be Paisley, rather than Mark Durkan, Hume's succesor.

Overwhelmingly British commentators, on both right and left, saw the Good Friday Agreement as a compromise necessary to accommodate Republicanism. With hindsight, it is evident it was largely constructed to accommodate a unionism - with nowhere else to go. Now the mass grave in Manhattan is no ‘trifle’ but neither it nor ‘a war against terrorism’ can hope, no matter how exquisite Unionist positional sense, to in anyway alter so ‘elementary’ a reality.

19th Oct '01