The Trouble With Peace Processes

By the end of this week, David Trimble may have resigned his job. Or—let me put it more dramatically—by the end of this week, David Trimble may have departed this political life for the Valhalla of failed peacemakers. There, he will join Ehud Barak—and everyone else who ever tried to bring a conflict to an end before the participants were ready to stop fighting.

Let me explain: Trimble is the leader of the Ulster Unionists, the largest, most mainstream, and most pro-peace party of Northern Irish Protestants. He is also first minister of Northern Ireland, the leader of the province’s government. It is this post that he is threatening to resign. Unusually, in this era of scandal-driven resignations, Trimble is not going leave because of anything he did wrong. He is going to resign because the Irish Republican Army promised to give up its weapons, and it has not.

True, Trimble did make a mistake: He believed the IRA would give up its weapons. Not only that, he believed that the voters of Northern Ireland would punish the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, if it should break its promise. A year and a half ago, he told an interviewer that if the IRA were to repudiate a part of the Good Friday Agreement—the pact that laid the basis for Northern Ireland’s Catholic-Protestant, Unionist-Republican government, and that also mandated “decommissioning,” or the laying down of arms—”they’re not going to be able to do that without suffering a massive penalty in terms of public opinion.” He was wrong.

Instead, for more than three years, the IRA dropped hints, played games, did nothing. Trimble’s support within his own party, and among Northern Irish Protestants in general, sank. Realizing that both he and his party risked serious losses in the British general election on June 7, he promised to resign July 1 if decommissioning had not begun. The promise galvanized his party but not its electorate. The Unionists were, if not exactly slaughtered, then badly wounded. They lost votes and parliamentary seats to the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, moderate, anti-terrorist Catholic politicians lost votes to the more radical Sinn Fein. On election night—after nearly losing his own seat, too—Trimble was heckled by a hostile mob of Protestant loyalists, people who used to be his supporters. Late last week, that ill humor spread across Belfast, a city that erupted into some of the worst rioting anyone has seen in a long time.

If he quits, Trimble will be the latest victim of a common modern complaint, perhaps best referred to as “peace process syndrome”: This is what happens when politicians on one side or another of a sectarian conflict start to confuse the “process” with “peace,” and think that because they are engaged in the former, they have achieved the latter. In fact, in a war or a long-running feud like the one in Northern Ireland, peace—real peace, which doesn’t contain the seeds of a new war—comes about only when one side or the other has effectively agreed to give up. Peace negotiations in South Africa were successful because the apartheid regime gave up. Transition negotiations in Poland were successful in 1989 because the Communist regime gave up.

In Northern Ireland, neither the Unionists nor the IRA has given up. The Unionists still believe that the northern part of the island of Ireland, where they are the majority, should remain part of Great Britain. The IRA believes that Ireland should be reunited and that it is acceptable to use violence and terrorism to achieve this aim. At the end of the day, there is no compromise between these two positions. All sorts of other issues can be discussed—new levels of contact have been set up between Northern and Southern Ireland, a coalition government has been created that includes Catholics and Protestants—but as each one was resolved, the most fundamental issue simply grew more glaringly unresolvable.

True, it did seem, a few months back, as if a compromise of sorts had been reached. The IRA, while not giving up the armed struggle, seemed, to many people, to have acknowledged that the armed struggle might not achieve victory for a very, very long time. Trimble himself, in a speech he made to the Ulster Unionists last weekend, noted that he had lately heard a republican—meaning a pro-IRA politician—discussing the need for a regional development strategy for the next 25 years: “So he was anxious to plan for Northern Ireland in 25 years’ time!” he marveled.

For many Unionists, however, this sort of linguistic modulation wasn’t enough: They wanted something more concrete. They wanted the IRA to make good their promises and decommission their weapons. Decommissioning may sound wholly meaningless—after all, even if the IRA hands over some weapons, they could always buy more—but it is more complicated than that. Decommissing is a euphemism, as I have written before: It is Northern-Irish-speak for “give up fighting for good”—or “surrender”—and the IRA can’t bring itself to do that. Hence the rise in support for extremist parties, the loss of support for the moderates, the return to rioting, and the threatened resignation of David Trimble. The most pessimistic commentators are now predicting the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement altogether—which means that another IRA bombing campaign is not out of the question.

In a way, all of this should surprise no one: If anyone thinks it strange that symbolic issues should have such significance, may I refer them to the long Arab-Israeli stalemate over the status of Jerusalem in general, and the Temple Mount in particular—an equally fraught, equally bitter, and equally “symbolic” issue. Or, for that matter, to the Indian-Pakistani feud over Kashmir. Symbolic places and symbolic gestures are very important indeed, because they tell the participants in the conflict who has won. And until everyone is ready to agree about who has won, a “peace process” will always remain just that.