By Anthony McIntyre (for Fortnight)
Leeds Castle fitted the peace process like a glove. Described as ‘an English castle as envisaged by Hollywood’, the building’s artificiality synchronised perfectly with the false dawn that forever accompanies our money-for-old rope politicians as they work to prolong the interminable processing that has now come to define Northern Irish political life. Promised sunrises have been plentiful in the peace process, but the vampire political class which has drunk licentiously from the veins of public hope has never yet failed to scurry back to the comfort of darkness at the first sign of the ultra violet rays that might bring the curtain down on its perpetual processing. The only agreement that stirred its interest ahead of Leeds was agreement not to agree.
Each side crossed the Irish Sea fully aware that the other was not yet ready to deal. The challenge for both was to deploy enough sleight of hand so as to emerge post-Leeds to a backdrop of positive if indecipherable atmospherics while at the same time appearing less culpable than the opposition. They had only to complete the course not howling and bawling at each other, allude to progress made and hint at more to come. Regardless of ‘the moment of decision’ rhetoric, the Irish and British governments, now hostage to the acute embarrassment of yet more failures, would do the rest and trumpet out the necessary mood music. Whatever London and Dublin say about the threat posed by ambiguity, honesty is not what the peace process is about. Their professed eagerness to move from peace processing to cease processing is rarely matched by detailed knowledge of how to get there. The type of sanctions suggested by Davy Adams, writing in the Irish Times, never manage to find sufficient spring in Anglo-Irish intent to complete the leap from thought to action.
The Leeds negotiations were a debacle only from the governmental point of view. The main protagonists slept fine, dined well, chatted long, concluded nothing, and departed to certain electoral reward. It was well signposted in advance, the analytically illiterate alone thinking they could read what was not written between the lines.
Gerry Adams’ suggestion in the run up to the talks that the Provisional movement needed to consider removing the IRA and thus deprive unionism of an excuse - without making any attempt to divest itself of the IRA - was a loaded offer the DUP could only refuse. It had become the dominant force within unionism by portraying David Trimble as a gullible man who three times bought a horse from a swindling Gerry Adams, only for Adams to ride off after every transaction on the same horse, in typical gunslinger fashion, discharging his weapons triumphantly into the sky. Having usurped Trimble in order to become Trimble and eventually reach agreement even if it is packaged and presented as the Shrove Tuesday Accord, the DUP made it clear it was not into the business of paying for a horse and purchasing a mere saddle. It would sit in government with Sinn Féin but only in a post-IRA world and not in response to post-IRA words. For now, ‘ne`er the twain shall meet’. The scene was set for a choreographed disagreement.
Sinn Féin, still on the rise in the Republic is not about to subvert its island-wide expansionist project by reaching the only agreement possible with the DUP and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. That is the statesman-like profile of its leader enhanced exponentially by the peace process, in turn fuelled by the IRA - always on the verge of going but never quite leaving. Sending the IRA out to graze before the electoral grass has grown as high as it can does not figure in Sinn Féin’s strategic calculations. The peace process exists only because of the continued existence of the IRA. Few would be remotely interested in a peace process that existed in a post-IRA Ireland, seeing little point in pursing an objective already secured. For now the peace process remains an electoral asset for Sinn Féin in the Republic while the IRA in its current mode is not yet an electoral liability. When the IRA starts to inhibit Sinn Féin’s electoral growth, as it at some point shall, it will be sold off in exchange for even more electoral growth. The Republic’s electorate and not the DUP will determine when the IRA goes into retirement. At that point, far beyond Leeds, Sinn Féin will come to the plate. For Adams the Good Friday Agreement is subsidiary to expansionism. The lack of certainty about its future institutional status generates a creative tension from which Sinn Féin stands to profit. What does it matter to Adams if the Agreement is parked in institutional abeyance for some years to come? That he is not blamed by the electorate for placing it there, and at all times is seen to call for its re-enactment, is sufficient to ensure that both his star and that of his party continue to rise.
Likewise the DUP wanting to strike a deal this side of a British general election is fanciful. Trimble felt compelled to listen when Adams said in 1999 ‘follow me I am right behind you’, formed a power sharing executive and then brought it down within three months because no decommissioning took place. The DUP will hardly want a rerun of that. With Paisley pointing to a comment by Martin McGuinness that the IRA was not at Leeds and had given no undertakings it would be an ill judged move for the DUP to attempt to convince the unionist electorate that Sinn Féin’s words were somehow less slippery than they were previously. Like Sinn Féin, the DUP has little to lose. Direct rule and no joint authority - it is as British as it gets.
With plenty of incentives for the political class to shout ‘steady as she goes’ and absolutely nothing to induce a change in course, we can expect any Anglo-Irish imposed ‘moment of decision’ to be sliced into 60 separate negotiating seconds. There will be agreement eventually. That is not in doubt. The remaining question to tax our minds is how many more times will the British and Irish governments be castled before that point is reached?