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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 114: November 2003

Not Quite a Government Once Again

[Return to related issues of Nonviolent News.]

Efforts falling at the final hurdle, Northern Ireland may have approaching elections but no prospect of a return to devolved government in the immediate future. It looked like it was going to be a synchronised swimming display. Instead we got a lot of thrashing about in the water and the risk of people drowning.

Tuesday 21st October promised fair. Elections were announced by the British government for 26th November, Gerry Adams made his statement (“We are opposed to any use or threat of force for any political purpose” etc) and then General John de Chastelain did his thing, speaking about the IRA putting a substantial and significant quantity of weapons beyond use. But the Ulster Unionist weren’t convinced by a report which did not have the detail they wanted and David Trimble announced they wouldn’t proceed. So arose the difficult situation for moderate Unionists of going into an election (to the NI Assembly) with no deal under their belt. Undoubtedly the latter situation is good news for the anti-Agreement Unionists and the DUP/Democratic Unionist Party. But the results may not prove to be as traumatic as feared.

Ulster Unionists feel that they have been conned before with promises of IRA disarmament which didn’t amount to a hill of beans let alone explosives. The feel there was no indication of where they are in the disarmament process. It seems it was a case of the IRA’s maximum being less than the Unionists’ minimum; possibly for a number of reasons, including avoiding any stigma of defeat or capitulation, the IRA was unwilling to give more details than that relayed by de Chastelain. The Unionists, feeling that they had to have certainty and transparency, felt they needed details – how much of what was destroyed, and subsequently asked for a timetable of the destruction of the rest of the IRA’s armoury. The IRA does not dance, or want to be seen to dance, to a Unionist tune; in due course they may reveal more but it will already be in the context of a different ball game. This game has already been abandoned. Once again it has been a mismatch. You could say that the Unionists should have trusted more; but they didn’t, it is understandable why they didn’t, and that was that.

Given the fact that all the negotiations were happening behind closed doors, it was all rather disempowering for the ordinary citizen. There was no popular groundswell of support, just quiet waiting. There were no people on the streets demonstrating, no feeling that the politicians had to be pressured by popular support for the process. Rather there was simply waiting for them to get their act together, and that act, in the end, fell apart.

There are things for the ordinary citizen to do in Northern Ireland. We cannot just wait on the politicians to get their act together because that, as we have seen so often, can be waiting for a sandcastle to be built with the tide coming in. Firstly pressure does need to be put on the politicians, through letters, opinions expressed, and voting, but that is only part of an answer. Secondly, we need to be ‘building the alternative now’ by rejecting sectarianism and bringing people together on issues that matter both at a community and a societal level. Thirdly, we need to get our educational systems to deliver either through integrated education or else meaningful interaction across the divide for young people. Fourthly, we need to further develop policing and policing alternatives (mediation, restorative justice) which deal with the thorny issue of law and order so that ceases to be a divisive factor. And fifthly, we need to build the minimal concept of non-violence; not just that violence has not worked in the Troubles but that it was bound to fail, so that we can explore a peaceful future through new and innovative ways of working apart and working together. We take ‘nonviolence’ (without a hyphen) as a further commitment to creative, imaginative, and not-violent means of workings in all aspects of life, including international relations.

That we get the politicians we deserve is a popular adage. Without judging the rights and wrongs of the current situation, until Northern Ireland can move beyond arms-wrestling we will have this up and down, in and out, local government. And even when that gets settled it will not be, as we have said before, the end of history. That will still have plenty of surprises in store for us. Fortunately or unfortunately, the way forward has many twists and turns, ups and downs yet, so may the road rise to meet us.

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