The media across the world, politicians, clerics and assorted pundits, have proclaimed that life, thoughts, even the world itself has changed since the hijacked planes, taken over by fanatical, suicidal religious extremists, crashed into the Twin Towers World Trade Centre and the Pentagon Buildings in the USA and the obliterating of six to seven thousand human beings of differing ethnicity, beliefs and nationalities, consigning them to dust in the rubble of the collapsed structures on September 11th, was watched and heard with incredulity on television and radio on the five continents.
Well, that’s not quite true, it seems, for on the Ardoyne Road in North Belfast, every day of the school week, on their way to and from their Catholic Primary School, the pupils have to run the gauntlet of a hostile Loyalist Protestant crowd, incensed that they dared to take the shortest route through a ‘Protestant’ housing estate to the front entrance of their school instead of a circuitous and much longer journey to the back door as demanded by the demonstrators.
And violence still erupts in loyalist areas, cars are commandeered and burnt, houses of their opposite religionists are firebombed, the police are subjected to missiles, pipe bombs, gunfire and numerous confrontations and an investigative journalist, Martin O’Hagan, who had courageously exposed the activities of both paramilitary groups over the years, was shot dead by loyalists on his way home with his wife, after an evening at his local pub. Truly ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, in Northern Ireland anyway.
Then David Trimble, Ulster Unionist leader and resigned First Minister. who, a few years ago, jointly with John Hume, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, appeared not to live up to that honour when he sought to expel Sinn Féin members by moving a motion in the Assembly, and, having failed to obtain the constitutionally required cross party support, intends to withdraw his party members from the Executive on Wednesday 17th October thus, probably, collapsing the Good Friday Agreement. To me, and I believe, to any objective impartial observer, this negates his Peace Award and could be classed as an ignoble act.
Trimble is al;so smarting from the fact that a Belfast Court has declared that his action in barring Sinn Féin ministers from meeting their counterparts in the Irish Republic was outside his powers as First Minister. I understand that he may take the case to the House of Lords.
Before 11th September it was obvious that moves towards agreement for the disposal of paramilitary weapons by Republicans were particularly required but when such actions were clearly being actively considered the Ulster Unionist leadership, by the above actions, seemed determined to make it less possible to persuade the IRA to make a positive demonstration. They know only too well that it won’t take place if it seems to have happened as the result of Unionist ultimatums.
Clearly under pressure by the events after September 11th and the ‘declaration of war’ on terrorism, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, has reviewed the ceasefires of the main loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA and one of its offshoots as well as the LDF and has specified that these have been broken by their participation in the recent events and the murder of Martin O’Hagan.
While there have been instances of republican violence the security forces have concluded that it has not been at such a level as to necessitate similar action by the Secretary of State in respect of the Provisional IRA because, in as much that they have not carried out any attacks on the security forces, both military and police, their ceasefire is deemed to be intact.
However, the peace process, despite setbacks from time to time, has seen the long winding road traversed by both communities and since its inception the general situation has improved immensely: the necessary structural changes under the Agreement have been or are on course to be completed very soon.
And even allowing for the sectarian incidents and the need to erect and extend ‘peace barriers’ and the specifying of loyalist cease fires, the main threat to the agreement of 10th April 1998 comes from the machinations of the Ulster Unionists as they try to contain the divisions within their party and the electoral threat from Paisley’s DUP
As no Gulliver has appeared on the scene, unless one comes swiftly (no pun intended) and unless within the few weeks ‘thinking time’ the last 24 hour Assembly suspension has provided the IRA is able to dispose of weapons to the satisfaction of De Chastelain and the Commission, direct rule seems likely.
Martin McGuinness (Education Minister), Sinn Féin, has said he is working flat out to achieve this. It is more likely to happen if David Trimble stops trying to make it seem that he has forced this by his tactics. It must come as a contribution to the peace process and not as an act of surrender, if it is to be successfully concluded.