Current Affairs Military Politics

The Peace Process Elicits Irish Pride But British Shame?

An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army
An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)

So suddenly the news media around the globe have become aware of one the most widely-known secrets in Irish and British politics. As part of the Peace Process of the late 1990s and early 2000s dozens of former Volunteers of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army sought by the British authorities were recognised as having de facto immunity under UK law. The so-called “on-the runs” (OTRs) were guaranteed non-prosecution in very carefully phrased legal language by the government of Britain, language that allowed the folks in London to keep face by not publicly acknowledging that the past actions of the insurgents were political or military in nature while in private doing exactly that. In politics as in war obfuscation is king.

Given that pretty much everyone knew that such an agreement had been reached between the various parties, and over a period of some years, why all the excitement now? Perhaps it is due to the fact that politicians, the media and much of the general public in Britain are still unable to face up to the realities of a peace process in Ireland that they actively sought and participated in? After decades of denying the political nature of the insurgency aligned against them (while covertly communicating with it the whole time) the British agreed to negotiate in open with their Irish Republican opponents in a carefully orchestrated dance of give-and-take throughout the 1990s. Yes, there are many criticisms to be made of that period and from all sides. They are well rehearsed and there are those both in Ireland and Britain who cry loudly about “sell-out” and “betrayal”, albeit from diametrically opposed viewpoints. However the relative success of the era of talks and counter-talks cannot be denied, even if some regard it as no more than a generational breather in an ongoing struggle (and one with an inevitable endpoint).

One outcome of all this is that Irish popular culture views the Peace Process very differently from British popular culture. In Ireland the 1998 Belfast Agreement and other accords are regarded as historic compromises and are largely praised as such. They remain touchstones for speeches, rallies and point-scoring in the political world. In contrast in Britain the Belfast Agreement and the negotiations around it are barely mentioned at all, as if the people of Britain are collectively unable to accept that an end to the Long War came at the price of Sinn Féin in regional government in Belfast and ex-IRA Volunteers treated as statesmen. The British tabloid press still act and publish as if 2014 was 1974. It is this dualistic perception of the Peace Process, the Irish positive, the British negative, which ironically carries within it the seeds for future misunderstandings and conflict.

Update: the Daily Mail, Britain’s hugely popular right-wing newspaper, carries some traditional Fleet Street reporting on the farcical arrest, detention and trial of John Downey, including some old school racial profiling:

“John Downey has always denied involvement. Two months after the bombing, police issued an artist’s impression – thickly bearded, with dark hair and rugged, Celtic features…”

Celtic features? Bring back the 1970s and ’80s when the British press used to tell its readers to watch out for “labourer-types” with ruddy faces, red hair and beards!

19 comments on “The Peace Process Elicits Irish Pride But British Shame?

  1. would reblog this – if I knew how to!!! Good analysis Séamas – rings very true in lots of statements. Saw mr Robinson is threatening to resign over this – if only !!!

    • Thanks. Very much a storm in a teacup this side of the Irish Sea, whereas in Britain they are jumping up and down with disbelief. The DUP knew about this all along. And we all know it. Is Peadar really out to bring down Stormont Or is it some well-timed electoral sabre rattling? The latter I’d guess. He is looking over his shoulder at TUV, PUP, et al however ridiculous they may seem to the metrotextual classes.

      The repost option is the “Athbhagáil” button at the bottom of the post. At least that is how it appears on my Dashboard 😉

  2. an lorcánach

    “I knew nothing about IRA fugitives deal – Lord Trimble — Ex-first minister, who played key role in peace process, says: ‘I would dearly love to know who signed off those letters'”

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/27/northern-ireland-crisis-ira-fugitives-lord-trimble

    • Or did he? Scepticism reigns.

      • an lorcánach

        it was a given or at least amnesties were assumed — resignation threat won’t exactly hurt upcoming e.u. parliamentary elections for Robinson’s party!

        ‘In his book Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, Mr Powell [‘Jonathan Powell, the civil servant who acted as Tony Blair’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland’] wrote that Mr Robinson and Mr Dodds “said they could accept the implementation of the unpopular undertakings we had made under the Joint Declaration on OTRs as long as Tony (Blair) wrote to (Ian) Paisley making it clear that these concessions had been agreed during David Trimble’s watch, not theirs.”

        Mr Robinson has dismissed this as inaccurate while Lord Trimble, ex-leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a former first minister of Northern Ireland, has also denied all knowledge of the letters.

        It has emerged that a senior PSNI officer briefed the Northern Ireland Policing Board on elements of the scheme in 2010. DUP members were present at the meeting, although the letters were not mentioned.

        The issue was also raised in the 2009 Eames-Bradley report on the legacy of the Troubles.’

        http://www.channel4.com/news/northern-irelands-secret-letters-the-key-questions

  3. On the Nolan Show last night Gerry Kelly effectively admitted that the D.U.P. knew nothing about this, because if they had done they would have opposed it. And, of course, its not just the D.U.P. who are annoyed, people like Mark Durkan and Alex Attwood of the S.D.L.P. sounded pretty upset when I heard them being interviewed. Of course, nobody should be surprised, after all who was leading the negotiations — step forward Tony Blair, an unprincipled charlatan if ever there was one. I’m also cynical enough to believe that if Mr Downey had been linked to bombings in Belfast, or provincial northern Irish towns, in which some people were killed, it wouldn’t have featured at all on the U.K. national television or radio news, it depends whose lives are taken and in which location.

    • Yet, as they say in Belfast, the dogs on the street knew it. There are a lot more details to emerge from this story. Note even half the truth is out there yet about who knew what, where and when.

      On the latter point I completely agree. Whether the lives are Irish or Irish-British neither are of comparable value to the lives of people in Britain. In the eyes of the latter. Which is perhaps why the conflict lasted so long and only ended when British people in Britain were directly impacted by the “block-buster” bombs of the 1990s.

  4. everything I have managed to read in the past couple of days seems to indicate everyone knew – the PUP did and even the leader of the new NI21 did.
    “Whether the lives are Irish or Irish-British neither are of comparable value to the lives of horses in Britain.”
    There you are Séamas – fixed that for you!!

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