Two days before the 30th anniversary of Belfast’s ‘Bloody Friday’, 21 st July 1972 when 20 bombs exploded in the city, killing 7 civilians and injuring 100, many of them seriously, the Provisional IRA issued a statement (traditionally signed ‘P.O’Neil’) apologising for the death of 1800 non-combatants plus others who had died and also for those injured as a result of Republican actions during the three decades of conflict, of the ‘Troubles’, since 1969.
This was welcomed by some Unionists, albeit in some cases grudgingly. Others thought it was a cynical attempt to pre-empt the response, expected from the Prime Minister on July 24th, to the call from the First Minister, Northern Ireland, and Leader of the Ulster Unionists, David Trimble, to Tony Blair to declare whether or not the Provo's had breached their ceasefire, and if they had, that he should have them from the Ruling Executive.
Despite some incidents, including protests by Orangemen at Drumcree against being barred from marching back down the Garvaghy Road and by Nationalists / Republicans about Orange parades being permitted in sensitive areas, such as the Ardoyne, the annual 12th July Loyal orange lodge demonstrations passed off relatively peacefully, with skirmishes in North Belfast.
However, at the weekend following the IRA declaration there were violent confrontations initiated by Loyalist gangs and responses from Republicans, involving hundreds of people, causing many injuries to police officers as well as to members of both communities.
A young Protestant man suffered a serious gunshot wound and a young Catholic father of four, wearing a Celtic Football supporter’s jersey, was shot dead. Responsibility for his death has been claimed by a Loyalist group, UFF or ‘Red Hand Defenders’, clearly a sectarian killing.
On BBC 5 Live’s morning phone-in on July 22nd a DUP and a Sinn Féin spokesperson clashed in their interpretations of the events of the previous four weeks. I tried to get on to the broadcast without success by telling the researcher that Unionists were trying to row away from the Good Friday Agreement’s full implementation, whilst Republicans were rowing too slowly towards it.
The DUP councillor, while he was on the air, tried to detach his party from any direct attack on catholic homes and people, condemning the actions. Yet he repeated the same sort of opinions expressed for them as the Loyalist paramilitaries who had carried them out.
The Sinn Féin councillor claimed that Republicans had been active, trying to prevent attacks on Unionist communities (confirmed by police spokespersons) and challenged the Paisleyite to do the same in respect of attacks on Catholics. The presenter intervened to stop recriminations getting out of hand.
First Minister Trimble, under pressure from his would-be successor, Jeffrey Donaldson MP, and his Westminster colleague, David Burnside, has proclaimed that he believes that the DUP is making ground against his own party, and Sinn Féin likewise against the SDLP, which, if reflected in the 2003 Assembly election, would endanger the 1998 agreement. He is urging the Government to act decisively against paramilitaries in order to stem the trend and prevent the Assembly being dominated by extremes.
He has expressed fear that unless the paramilitaries are brought under control large sections of the Unionist population will withdraw from the Accord which would lead to a complete collapse of the system of government set up under it.
At Commons Question time on July 24th Prime Minister Blair, replying to questions from Unionist and Nationalist members for Northern Ireland, said that though recognising the difficulties of transition from conflict to the democratic process there was no acceptable level of violence. Punishment beatings, training and recruitment, acquisition of weapons, targeting of people or association with international terrorist movements were not compatible with the Belfast Agreement and if it was confirmed that the signators participated in such activities the Government would act to exclude them from office.
The Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, also made a prepared statement on the issue. He outlined measures by which security forces would be deployed in areas in Belfast where a high degree of violence had been and was still being organised. The Attorney general had been asked to investigate what changes in the law might be necessary to strengthen measures against such activities.
Interviewed afterwards the two dissident Ulster Unionist MPs, Donaldson and Burnside, affirmed that at the next meeting of the Ulster Unionist Ruling Council, due in October, if there had been no success in stopping violations of the IRA ceasefire, they would press Trimble to withdraw from the Executive and if he didn’t he would be challenged for the leadership, together with a demand for Sinn Féin to be excluded from ministerial office.
They accepted that although Loyalist paramilitaries were engaged in the same sort of activities as Republicans and in the main not committed to ceasefires or represented on the Executive, security forces should be taking action against them also.
In my view, with the exception of those in the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition who temporarily registered as such to effect the election of the First Minister Deputy, even those in the Unionist-designated section of the Assembly claiming to be democrats are hypocritically riding on the backs of the activities of Loyalist paramilitaries in as much as they are fully aware of the difficulties on the Republican side and never fail to use them when campaigning for rejection of the Agreement.
It works like this, I believe. Sinn Féin is unable as yet to get full agreement from the Provisional IRA to stop or reduce punishment beatings and to move further on decommissioning so long as there are no reciprocal moves on the Loyalist side to do so and to stop actions against Catholic homes, property and persons.
So, although Unionist politicians may call on Loyalists to stop these activities, they know that Republicans use this as a reason to keep their organisations in existence, which enables dissidents and other Unionists to try to exclude Sinn Féin from government - a sort of Catch 22 situation or self sustaining dilemma.
As the objective of the Ulster Unionist dissidents and the DUP is to frustrate the Agreement and have it reviewed and altered in favour of Unionist agendas, they, unless the Government agrees, are ready to face or force its scrapping. They are in fact trying to restore a Unionist veto.
Whatever these wreckers, still imbued with ascendancy attitudes, are intent on, and who pay lip-service to democracy, they cannot yet accept that they misused their past political dominance. If the Peace process is to succeed they must never be allowed that level of power again.
So, despite their protestations, Unionist ‘Nos’ and their dissident Assembly Members and MPs, in my view, are not serious about condemning loyalist paramilitary action, for they know it could still trigger a Republican response and thus sustain and reinforce opposition to Sinn Féin’s place on the Executive and their own assault on the Good Friday Agreement.
What makes all these manoeuvres and strategies possible is the actual voting system used by the Assembly and the balance of designation between Unionists and Nationalists which determines their places on the Executive, an integral part of the Agreement which facilitates the DUP and dissident UUP members to combine to make Assembly government inoperative when they so wish.
If David Trimble, his party and Assembly Members still want to make the thing work they and he must show real leadership and face down their dissenters. Then they might be able to come to terms with members from other parties to adjust the voting system so as to consolidate support for the Agreement amongst other parties, other than, of course, the DUP.
Efforts must be made, by action or example, to convince Trimble he is on the wrong tack and that the future of Northern Ireland and its Peace process depends entirely on strengthening support for the Agreement among Nationalists/Republicans as well as his Ulster Unionist Party and Unionist communities.
I hear that Ian Paisley, MP, in a meeting with the Prime Minister, has laid the blame for the current level of violence in Northern Ireland on Blair’s policies.
The cool cheek of the man, the mentor of the sectarian violence across the Six Counties since the mid 1960s, is breathtaking. His record of fomenting is well known and his continuation of it an affront to us all.
He is immune to any physical danger, for who would respond to the cry, “who will rid us of this turbulent priest?”, knowing full well that sort of removal would bring ultimate catastrophe.
He has the cheek of the devil and, as the saying goes, ‘the devil looks after his own’.