Why stalemate might mean nobody even wants a deal

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

George Mitchell was in Belfast again last week, addressing yet another conference:

“I urge the current political leaders and the governments in Ireland and the UK to summon the courage and vision that their predecessors summoned in 1998. Political leaders and the people of Northern Ireland have come too far to risk letting peace slip away.

George Mitchell during last week's conference at Queen's University Belfast

George Mitchell during last week's conference at Queen's University Belfast

“There is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings and they can be ended by human beings. No matter how hate-filled, peace can prevail. No matter how bleak the outlook, the search for peace must go on.”

Cue prolonged applause and a standing ovation. Exactly the same response he got when he was here in April to ‘celebrate’ the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – even though the institutions hadn’t met for 15 months. It is now almost 20 months and the prospect of a return seems as unlikely as ever.

So, maybe we need to ask a slightly different question: is it possible for a conflict to continue in the absence of routine, orchestrated violence and paramilitary campaigns? Put that another way: is it accurate to describe what we have now as ‘peace,’ even when all it actually amounts to is stalemate rather than a collectively agreed political settlement? When Mitchell says there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended, is he correct?

Generally speaking there are two ways of ending a conflict. Either one side or the other wins and a formal surrender is followed by negotiation; or, all sides involved reach a point at which they agree that nobody can win so they gather round a table and negotiate a deal which all are prepared to buy into.

But that sort of settlement requires very clear, unambiguous consensus and a willingness afterwards to work together in common purpose towards the same end goal. In Northern Ireland we tried the second option, yet I think the vast majority now agree that it isn’t working.

Why isn’t it working? Mitchell has a point when he says that conflicts are created by human beings and can be ended by human beings. But ending the conflict requires those human beings to see the ‘other side’ in a different, more positive light.

Here are two viewpoints – one from a unionist (quoted in ‘Loyal to the Core, Orangeism and Britishness in NI) and one from a member of SF (in an interview with me):

‘Republicans have decided that, having spent 35 years slaughtering members of the Protestant community with the gun and the bomb, they have now moved into the next phase of the plan to break Protestant resistance so they can achieve their end goal – the destruction of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom ... I don’t think Sinn Fein should be in government, they are the political wing of the republican movement and that organisation has murdered and maimed our people for years.’

‘The unionists used the RUC, B Specials and loyalist paramilitaries to impose their will on what they described as ‘their’ state. They had no interest in equality back then and they have no interest in equality now. Even so-called ordinary unionists still point to the IRA and Gerry Adams, but never look over their own shoulders to look at the cluster of loyalist paramilitaries in their own backyard at this very moment. Most unionists can’t admit there was ever anything wrong with their wee Ulster.’

I think those views are a fairly – depressingly – accurate reflection of how we see each other. In other words, it doesn’t actually matter how many agreements, deals, side-deals and understandings we sign, the reality of our relationship is that it is still based on mutual distrust. There is no agreed narrative. No agreed solution. We endure each other rather than embrace.

And that’s a problem for the leadership of both the DUP and Sinn Fein. They know that there are advantages to having an Executive and Assembly up and running and they know, too, that compromises are required. Peter Robinson summed it up in his recent speech at Queen’s University in June.

Yet the grassroots of both those parties have reached their own breaking point. Vast swathes of SF voters despise – and there really is no other word for it – the DUP; while equally vast swathes of the DUP despise SF. That’s why the leaderships have had to harden their stances since December 2016 and it’s why the vote for both parties is continuing to grow. They reflect what their grassroots want. Both saw the SDLP and UUP destroyed because the leaderships moved too far, too fast.

But there is now a crucial difference between 1998, 2007 and today. In 1998 a majority – albeit a slim one on the unionist side – agreed to take a risk and voted Yes in the referendum. In 2007 the DUP and SF took a risk of their own and cut a deal that presented huge compromises for both leaderships. But the ‘hope’ of both 1998 and 2007 is dead. I don’t see evidence of hope anywhere. I don’t see any evidence that this is a conflict which can be ended; and that’s because I don’t believe that genuine compromise between unionism and republicanism is, in fact, possible anymore. Maybe it never was possible: maybe I just allowed myself a stupid and uncharacteristic moment of optimism in 1998.

As I noted in last week’s column none of this pessimism means that a deal couldn’t be cut reasonably quickly, or that there couldn’t still be one final effort to make sure, as George Mitchell put it, that we don’t let peace ‘slip away’. The more I think about it though, the more I’ve realised that, irrespective of what the leaderships may think, most of their voters don’t actually want a deal of any sort with ‘themmuns’.