Looking for a Fight

4 minute read

Somehow it is fitting that the people of Northern Ireland can’t even agree on the name of the treaty they signed four years ago to end the Troubles. Catholics call it the Good Friday agreement after the holy day on which it was reached. To many Protestants that seems irreverent, so they call it the Belfast agreement. But each side argues that its commitment to the agreement’s principles is greater than the other’s. So how have they allowed themselves to get into yet another disastrous fight? This week Britain is set to suspend self-government, close the Stormont Assembly and rule directly from London, one more unhappy time.

The immediate cause was a police crackdown on a ring of alleged spies run by Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Police and government officials say republicans had vacuumed up more than a thousand sensitive documents, from conversations between Tony Blair and George W. Bush to personal details about security personnel. First Minister David Trimble, who negotiated the Belfast agreement for the unionists, was planning to take his party out of the government — thus causing its collapse — if Blair didn’t put it in the freezer first. Trimble said he would have “a huge problem” trusting Sinn Fein again. “To make things work you do have to have a minimal level of confidence in others,” he told TIME. “There is a question of personal damage.”

All the same, it’s a strange time for him to pick such a climactic fight. Northern Ireland today is undoubtedly better off than when the agreement was signed, better also than at many times since. Republicans may be spying, but they are not bombing. Most of the violence lately has come from loyalist militias targeting their enemies — plus an occasional Catholic — in a seamy underworld of drugs, extortion and personal feuds.

But morale among unionists has been sagging — a whole people that seems in need of antidepressants. Some simply never wanted to share power with Catholics. Others think putting Sinn Fein in government rewarded the I.R.A. for its campaign of terror. But most talk about the peace process failing to live up to their expectations. Even though violence has been cut dramatically, unionists complain that they’ve swallowed police reform and the release of paramilitary prisoners in the belief that they would see bigger gestures in return, like true I.R.A. disarmament or a declaration that the war is over. They are suspicious that the I.R.A. is hanging around in case politics doesn’t further its goal of a united Ireland. “Those unionists who took the leap of faith found that [Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams had packed the parachute badly,” said Peter Brown, a 28-year-old unionist lawyer.

As unionists watch the Catholic population grow — threatening to erase their majority — it’s dawned on some of them that the best way to fend off a united Ireland is to convince Catholics they are better off being governed in Belfast. The problem is, those efforts are often ham-fisted. “I think unionism hasn’t adapted because it knows what it’s against better than what it’s for,” said Susan McKay, author of Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People.

Adams says the unionists are wrong about the spying, and wrong about the intentions of the I.R.A. Looking a little hurt and recalling compromises his side has swallowed, he accused unionists of engaging in “kamikaze politics” by dragging down the one political process that would make the I.R.A. wither away. After a decade of the peace process, the I.R.A. does seem to be junior to Sinn Fein inside the republican movement. Most reputed I.R.A. leaders are now busy in elected office. But in spite of Adams’ denials, and the symbolic destruction of some weapons, the I.R.A. is hardly dormant.

To revive Stormont, unionists now require the I.R.A. to disband, a demand that republicans say is too much. The impasse looks so great that opponents of the agreement have already pronounced it dead. Months of negotiations loom, but both sides say they’ll be there in the interests of peace — just as long as it is peace on their terms.

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