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Peter Hadden

High Stakes in Northern Ireland
Peace Process

(May 1999)

From The Socialist [UK], 28 May 1999.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Within days of the votes for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly being counted, the shape of the new administrations were agreed and ready to go into business. In Northern Ireland things are not so straightforward.

One year after the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly there is still no agreement on the new Executive. Unionists insist that the IRA decommission weapons before Sinn Fein take their seats. Sinn Fein are insisting that ministerial posts are theirs by right and there will be no prior decommissioning.

The Dublin and Westminster governments have set a 30 June deadline and threaten to suspend the Assembly if it is missed. Both the Sinn Fein leadership and the unionists led by Trimble have staked all on the Good Friday Agreement.

The complete collapse of the peace process would probably spell a political end for both Gerry Adams and David Trimble. On the other hand if either were seen to have moved too far on decommissioning this too would see them removed.

At Easter the two governments drew up proposals which leaned towards the Unionist position. Gerry Adams was unable to sell it to the republican movement, especially in the wake of the Rosemary Nelson killing and of other loyalist attacks which made Catholics feel vulnerable. The proposal was stillborn.

Early in May, talks in London produced an alternative government plan which leaned more towards Sinn Fein, with no firm commitment to hand over weapons prior to Sinn Fein gaining two ministerial seats. Trimble did not even attempt to persuade his party that this was worth considering.


Trimble will certainly make no decisive move from his “no weapons, no seats” stand before the European election is over. His leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is already being put to the test.

Paisley has called on voters to turn it into a second referendum on the Agreement. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein have declared their objective to take a UUP seat.

They hope that Unionist anti-Agreement voters will not transfer to Trimble, allowing nationalists to take two of the three seats. Were Sinn Fein to succeed, their victory would backfire. Trimble would likely be removed, and the Agreement on which the Sinn Fein leadership has staked their futures would be inoperable.


The government’s 30 June deadline is clearly set in the hope that an agreement reached a few days before the Drumcree march will defuse the tension, which is already building. If this risky strategy fails, hardliners on both sides, who see Drumcree as some kind of Alamo for their cause, will be boosted.

Talks initiated by David Trimble, including resident’s spokesman Brendan McKenna, have not produced a solution. The Orange Order, having had no parade last year and having maintained a protest of sorts since last July, appear adamant that there will be a parade this year.

The people of the Garvaghy Road feel that they have been under a sectarian siege for months. The Rosemary Nelson killing has added to local anger.

So too has the failure of the RUC to prosecute anyone for the brutal killing two years ago of local man, Robert Hamill who was beaten to death by loyalists while police looked on.

Brendan McKenna has raised the stakes by stating that residents are not even prepared to discuss a parade this year. In what will be seen by Orangemen as the opening of a second front, he has also called for another road to be declared a disputed route.

This will add to the intransigence of the local Orange Order who have obstinately refused face-to-face meetings with residents. If there is no agreement by July it is likely that there will be a repeat of last year when a huge military operation blocked the march. A physical and probably bloody confrontation was only averted when the murder of three children in Ballymoney defused the confrontational mood.

If there is no compromise the government will have to try and reopen the divisions within the Orange Order and within Unionism over violence at Drumcree, hoping this will allow them to hold the line.


The Patten Commission Report on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is due this summer. Sinn Fein has campaigned for the abolition of the RUC and will find it difficult to retreat.

The unionists want only piecemeal change. If there is no Assembly and if the Agreement is suspended when this report appears, it is likely it will appease no one and antagonise everyone. Even with the new Executive it is certain to strain relations between Unionists and Sinn Fein.

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Last updated: 5 October 2015