Although I am aware that Slate (despite the global pretensions of cyberspace) has a primarily North American audience, and that North Americans (despite their pretensions to multiculturalism) are generally unified by their dislike/disdain for the British, perhaps I can convince a few of you, nevertheless, to spare a few moments of sympathy today for the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant political party. So attached to blood and soil and tradition that they still display a Union Jack on their Web site —the BBC wouldn’t be caught dead doing something so retrograde—the Ulster Unionists have just this weekend been bullied by their British cousins into signing yet another historic accord, agreeing to return to yet another power-sharing arrangement in Belfast with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
For those of you (most of you, I suspect) who have been following the ups and downs of the Nasdaq far more closely than the ins and outs of the Northern Irish “peace process,” this means that the Unionists, who ended their participation in the Belfast miniparliament last February after the IRA consistently refused to comply with demands to give up its weapons, have just narrowly, reluctantly, voted to rejoin it, after an enormous internal battle. This is because an IRA statement on May 8 at last came out in favor of “a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use.” The statement was signed by P. O’Neill—Paddy O’Neill—which is the pseudonym the IRA traditionally used when it took responsibility for bombing civilians or “personnel,” as it traditionally describes British soldiers.
Despite O’Neill’s participation, this statement provoked the weight of the British government, the media, and pretty much everyone else to fall squarely upon the heads of the Unionists, to pressure them to start playing the game again. Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s Northern Ireland minister, was pretty direct: “Something better is not going to turn up,” he told the Unionists. “[T]he negotiations are over. It’s time to make a choice.” The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, told the Unionists to stop “obstructing” democracy. A BBC feature on Ulster yuppies living in London pretty much summed up the general British view of the problem: Clever young Protestants leave Belfast, boring old farts stay at home and battle for the right to stay British, and wouldn’t we be better off if everyone over there went to work for an online company or a bank.
Yet the Unionists were right to be wary of going back to sharing power with Sinn Fein/IRA in Belfast, as a touch of explanatory semiotics reveals. In fact, “putting weapons beyond use” is a euphemism: What the myriad participants in the Northern Irish “peace process” have theoretically been trying to do is persuade the IRA to “decommission” its weapons. Indeed, an agreement to decommission was part of the April 1998 Good Friday agreement that set up the power-sharing arrangement in Belfast in the first place. Yet “decommission,” a word deliberately chosen for its neutrality, is itself a euphemism for “disarm.” And “disarm” is a euphemism too: What the Unionists really and truly want is for the IRA to promise to stop bombing people, forever. Such a promise, however, would be interpreted by the IRA as “surrender.” And “surrender”—to give up the armed struggle to reunite Ireland—is precisely what the IRA has consistently refused to do.
Even IRA members’ “beyond use” statement from earlier this month makes that position pretty clear. They stick to their definition of “peace”: a unified Ireland. They stick to their definition of “causes of conflict”: the Britishness of Northern Ireland (although the Britishness of Northern Ireland is, of course, supported by a majority of its inhabitants). They berate those who would “abuse the peace process” by pursuing “the aim of defeating the IRA” (translation: How dare you demand that we give up terrorism). They offer to allow an independent international commission to inspect their arms dumps to ensure that their weapons remain “silent and secure” (translation: We are fully prepared to use weapons again if we need to).
Reading this sort of thing, you would be hard pressed to guess that the actual “cause of conflict” in Northern Ireland is the IRA. The equation is pretty simple: No IRA, no terrorism. No terrorism, no conflict. Yet even that convoluted formulation was, it is now being said, too much for a few of the IRA men, who have left to join the “Real IRA,” a splinter group that has already distinguished itself by its skill with Semtex.
All of this the Unionists knew perfectly well, but their choice wasn’t an easy one. They could rejoin the Belfast provincial government as a nonviolent political party sharing power with a political party backed by a few hundred “Paddy O’Neills” who still reserve the right to bomb everyone to kingdom come if things don’t go their way. Or the Unionists could refuse to cooperate, in which case they would have been called things like “retrograde” and “boring” and “irritating.” In the world of Northern Irish politics—a world where language is everything—what kind of choice was that?
Back they went to the “peace process.” But if the “peace process” remains democratic—if, that is, it continues to respect the will of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland, who continue to want, for some unknown reason, to remain British—you can bet (pardon the metaphor) that it will explode once again.