New Directions

In 2009, George Quigley of the Institute of British Irish Studies suggested that some of the stridency had gone out of the tone of debate in Northern Ireland and that “there is mutual civility there never was before”. But it was quite fragile; a frosty tolerance that was easily unhinged. Many of the physical barriers dividing communities remained, as did the segregated housing estates and the education divide. After the sheer horror of the Real IRA’s Omagh bomb that killed 28 people in 1998, there was a dramatic decline in the number of killings, which was cited as a vindication for the choice of politics over violence. The years after 1998 also witnessed the eclipse of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the end of the era of the leaders of those parties, John Hume and David Trimble (who together won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in laying the groundwork for the Belfast Agreement). In 1997 the UUP had ten MPs; by 2005 it had just one. The SDLP went from being the largest party in terms of votes in Northern Ireland to the fourth largest party. Sinn Féin secured a strong presence in the Dáil as well as in the North and Ian Paisley and his successor, Peter Robinson, leaders of a resurgent DUP, were converted to power sharing.

Along the way, there were postponed assembly elections and numerous claims that the Belfast Agreement ‘was dead’ as well as the firm IRA statement of July 2005:‘All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means’. This was followed by verifiable arms decommissioning, and numerous twists and turns before acceptance of a new police force and a power sharing government in 2007. John Hume’s replacement as SDLP leader, Mark Durcan, had asked: “what hope is there that those who delivered the worst of Northern Ireland’s past will deliver the best of its future?” The short-term answer came in the form of DUP’s Ian Paisley as first minister and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister (known as the ‘chuckle brothers’ in their working relationship). Paisley was on the losing side in 1998 but was the long-term winner. It seemed in 1998 that the Belfast Agreement had vindicated the moderates, but in the long run the so-called ‘extremes’ were the beneficiaries.

In the period after the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin and the IRA profited from internal discipline and ruthless centralisation, in contrast to the loyalist paramilitaries who imploded, the irony being that it was the republican’s opponents who got more out of the Agreement by securing the Union, the principle of consent and the eradication of the republic’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland in its constitution. The republicans got a share of power as well as cross-border bodies, the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and acceptance that they had fought a war and prisoners could be released. The path towards power sharing was long and winding precisely because both sides needed to make it so; unionists because of divisions in their ranks, and republicans because they had agreed to a compromise which fell drastically short of its stated objectives of a united Ireland.


previousPrevious - Northern Ireland Peace Process
Next - Anglo-Irish Relationsnext