A long march: Ireland’s peace process

Conn Corrigan
23 February 2006

On 25 February 2006, members of the Orange Order of Ulster will march down O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, and pass one of the Republic of Ireland capital's most famous buildings, the General Post Office (GPO). This site, a kind of Irish republican Bastille, is where Padraig Pearse read out the proclamation of the Irish Republic to inaugurate the 1916 Easter rebellion.

The rebellion (or "rising" as it became known in Irish national historiography and popular memory) ended in military defeat and the execution of its leaders, including Pearse himself, but – in large part precisely for that reason – it became a crucial part of the convulsive national struggle that culminated in the establishment of the Irish state in 1922-23. Indeed, less than two months after the Orange Order marches down O'Connell Street, the republic's armed forces will themselves march in a full military parade along the same street to mark the rebellion's ninetieth anniversary.

The Orange Order parade – an early start to the organisation's "marching season", which can involve as many as 3,500 parades between Easter Monday and the end of September – is thus part of a wider political reality involving a range of commemorations of historical events that in Ireland are still often deeply contested.

The Orange Order season centres on the 12 July celebration of the 1690 battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant William of Orange was victorious over the Catholic James II. To commemorate the 1916 rebellion, republicans traditionally wear Easter lilies. When the Orange Order, an organisation deeply ingrained in unionism, marches in Dublin, they will wear orange lilies instead of their traditional sashes and collarettes so as not to offend their hosts.

The politics of memory, then, are alive in Ireland. In this sense the 25 February march, like the Easter Rising anniversary, is also about current Irish politics. Ten years ago, when the Northern Ireland peace process was still in its embryonic stage, the idea of the Orange Order marching down the Irish republic's capital would have been as unimaginable for the organisation's members as for Dubliners. But the march on 25 February is not simply a local event, nor a regional one; its implications and its symbolism stretch beyond the streets of Dublin, reverberating north and south of the island.

Northern Ireland's peace process can be roughly dated to the first ceasefire declared by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in August 1994. This ultimately led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) in 1998. This agreement meant devolution of power from London to Belfast, and involved the main political parties in Northern Ireland (with the notable exception, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party [DUP]), as well as the British and Irish governments.

The Northern Ireland Assembly set up as part of the Belfast Agreement has been suspended since October 2002, after allegations of an IRA spy-ring operating in the assembly headquarters at Stormont, on the outskirts of Belfast. This is only one of the reasons that have led a number of politicians and political commentators – mainly, though not all, from the unionist side of the political spectrum – to view the entire Northern Ireland peace process with dismay.

Yet the very fact that the Orange Order march in Dublin is taking place can be seen as an indication of how far the island of Ireland has progressed in the peace-process era. The marching season in Northern Ireland is synonymous with tension, particularly when the Orange Order wishes to march through Catholic neighbourhoods. Typically, they protest that the Orange Order isn't welcome in their neighbourhoods, while the Orange Order says that it's been marching the same routes for generations and sees no reason why it should stop now. In September 2005, Belfast saw some of the worst rioting in years following the rerouting – by 100 metres – of an Orange Order parade.

Today, many Catholics in the south, and more particularly in the north, still regard the Orange Order as an inherently sectarian organisation, while many in the Orange Order regard the Irish republic with suspicion and hostility. As recently as 2000, a march in Dublin was cancelled, after the then-Lord Mayor, Mary Freehill, faced a barrage of criticism for inviting the Orange Order to the capital.

Senator Mary Henry, one of the supporters of the march in 2000, said: "This march will say more about us than the Orangemen … no matter what our views on the Orange marches, the process of reconciliation and the development of a tolerant Irish society has to take place here as well as in Northern Ireland." Not everyone agreed. A statement released by Sinn Fein, the second largest party in Northern Ireland (after the DUP) and its leading nationalist party, said: "For the Lord Mayor of Dublin to invite the Orange Order to march in Dublin is like the state governor inviting the Ku Klux Klan to march in Alabama."

Also in openDemocracy on modern Irish politics and nationalism:

Robin Wilson, "The end of the IRA"
(March 2005)

Paul Arthur, "The end of the IRA's 'long war'" (July 2005)

Stephen Howe, "Mad dogs and Ulstermen" – parts one and two (September 2005)

Richard English, "Sinn Féin's hundredth birthday"
(November 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

An arena for all

Ireland has changed greatly since the peace process began. Although the majority of the republic's citizens are still nominally Catholic, it's now a truism that the Catholic Church in Ireland is no longer the behemoth it once was. Another great institution of Irish life, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), has also changed. It decided to drop a ban on "foreign sports" in Croke Park, its headquarters and the largest stadium in Ireland.

In effect, the opening up of Croke Park means that soccer and rugby will be played there, in addition to the GAA's sports of hurling and Gaelic football. On 10 February 2007, as part of the six-nations rugby tournament, France will play Ireland at GAA headquarters. England will follow.

For most Irish people, this will mean much more than being able to watch their teams play in a nicer stadium than they are used to. From its beginnings in 1884, the GAA has always been firmly rooted in nationalism. Up until 1971, any member found playing or watching "foreign sports" could be banned or suspended from the organisation, and until November 2001, no members of the British security services were permitted to join. There was strong opposition to allowing soccer and rugby into Croke Park, especially from northern delegates, where five of the six counties voted against the suspension of the ban.

A certain class of Irish republicans has long memories: "800 years of oppression" is a favourite cliché. It is hard for some of them to stomach the idea of "God Save the Queen" being played in the same sacrosanct stadium where on Bloody Sunday in 1920, during the war of independence, the British Army indiscriminately opened fire, killing twelve spectators and a player. However, most GAA supporters – in other words, most Irish – won't have the same post-colonial chips on their shoulders, and will welcome the English teams and others to Croke Park. Not simply to forget the past, but to move on.

Through the prism of "tolerance" and "multiculturalism" (a particularly modish term in Ireland right now), the Orange Order's march in Dublin could thus be seen as an important milestone in the peace-process era, and a sign of the self-confidence "Celtic Tiger" Ireland now has. This is a country in which emigration, the bane of Irish life for well over a century, has replaced immigration, and whose younger generation is more familiar with "the peace process" than with "the Troubles" their parents know only too well.

The problems with peace

This last interpretation is optimistic. It's also possible to see this march as symptomatic of all that is wrong with the peace process. In 2000, it was the Orange Order's lodges in Dublin and Wicklow that proposed a march. This time round, the idea was conceived not primarily with some goodwill gesture in mind, nor for "bridge-building" (another modish phrase in today's Ireland, this one belonging to the peace-process lexicon). It was born out of protest.

The Orange Order has been unequivocal in its opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. When this agreement was put to a referendum in 1998, it was passed in Northern Ireland by a majority of 71%, despite the Orange Order and affiliated organisations advising their members to reject it. Other organisations taking part in the march in Dublin include Love Ulster, set up last year to protest against republican "concessions" and to prevent a united Ireland, and Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (Fair), who campaign against the release of paramilitary prisoners and the demilitarisation of Northern Ireland. These groups are somewhat representative of sections of the unionist community in Northern Ireland who feel disenfranchised by the peace process, which they regard as being weighted in favour of republicans.

Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, loyalist and republican prisoners may be released from prison under licence, provided they have already served at least two years in jail. If it is found that a released prisoner has returned to paramilitary activity, his licence may then be revoked, and he will be returned to prison. Since 1998, there have been 447 prisoners released, 241 republicans and 194 loyalists. Some of these prisoners are responsible for torture and multiple killings.

The release of republican – not loyalist – prisoners is one of the principal reasons the Orange Order and its affiliated organisations are protesting in Dublin. Fair say that the march in Dublin "will take a strong victim's voice to the heart of Dublin where perhaps for the first time the people of the Irish Republic will be shown the real cost of Republican terrorism." It claims to be "a non-sectarian, non-political organisation working for the interests of the innocent relatives of terrorist victims."

In a way, Fair is indeed non-sectarian, in that it is only interested in victims of republicans, regardless of their religion. It's sometimes mistakenly referred to as a "loyalist support group" which isn't strictly accurate, as it pays no attention to loyalist victims of loyalists. On its website, it gives a list, in chronological order, of victims of terrorists in Armagh, including only those of republicans. The list doesn't mention 59-year-old Elizabeth O'Neil, a Protestant, who in 1999 was killed in a bomb attack on her Catholic husband. Nor does it mention Philip Allen, also a Protestant, who was killed during a gun attack on a bar, as he drank with his best friend, a Catholic, Damien Trainor. Neither is any reference made to Protestants killed in intra-loyalist feuds.

One of the other issues the Orange Order and its affiliated organisations intend to raise when they come to Dublin is alleged Irish police-force collusion with the IRA. On its website, Fair says that it will soon have information on "collusion: weapons of genocide imported by the Irish government and their comrades in the IRA." Fair says nothing about the twenty-six victims of a loyalist bombing in Dublin in 1974, some of whom were killed on a street the Orange Order will walk past as they march to the Irish parliament. No one has ever been jailed for this atrocity and it is alleged that the loyalists who carried out the bombings did so with the help of the British security services.

The protesters in Dublin will argue – with justification – that the Irish government is guilty of its own double standard. Although it tries to persuade the unionist politicians in Northern Ireland that the release of republican prisoners is a painful necessity, it also insists that four IRA members who killed an Irish police officer, Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, serve the remainders of their sentences.

The reasons for this are not difficult to discern. It would be politically damaging in the south for the ruling Fianna Fail-led coalition to release the McCabe killers. Fine Gael, the main opposition party, has been quick to pounce on even the slightest suggestion that Fianna Fail might release them, with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny repeatedly warning that the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, has done some "secret deal" with Sinn Fein to release the killers. It seems a safe bet that they will serve the rest of their sentences.

Double standards and hypocrisies

Accusing the Irish government of double standards over the McCabe issue can be done by republicans as well as loyalists. Why should the fact that McCabe was an Irish policeman mean that his killers are not entitled to early release, when 447 other prisoners, both loyalist and republican, have already been set free? The response that McCabe's killing was somehow exceptional because he was a member of a police force doesn't wash, given that many of the republicans released in the North were jailed for killing British security servicemen.

Other terrorists have been released having committed more heinous crimes and after serving less of a sentence than the four McCabe killers, who were sentenced to up to fourteen years in 1999.

In 1997, Norman Coopey, who was a member of the Orange Order at the time, abducted James Morgan, a 16 year-old Catholic, while he was hitchhiking. After torturing him, Coopey bludgeoned Morgan to death with a hammer, before hiding his body in a pit with animal carcasses. In 2000, after serving three years, Coopey was released under the Belfast Agreement's prisoner-release scheme, and returned home, just six miles from the Morgan family home.

What was particularly striking about this case was that Coopey only joined a paramilitary organisation while in prison. He was under no orders to abduct Morgan, who himself had no paramilitary ties. When Coopey was first put in prison, he was placed in its non-paramilitary wing. He then applied for a transfer to the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) wing of the prison, for his own safety, only then becoming eligible for the early release scheme. Speaking after Coopey's release, James Morgan's mother Philomena said, "I voted for the Good Friday Agreement and I have to accept that he has been released under it. And despite what has happened to my family, I would vote yes again. I can see no other chance for this country."

Perhaps a more egregious example of a double standard is Sinn Fein's proposed amnesty for the IRA "on-the-runs". This would include, among others, a member of the gang who in 1979 murdered Lord Mountbatten, along with an 82-year-old woman and two teenage boys. Sinn Fein wants the IRA on-the-runs to be pardoned for their crimes, with no license, and without ever having to serve a day in prison – while they expect members of the British security services be brought to book for their numerous abuses and demand enquires into their alleged collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. The British government wisely decided to drop this proposed legislation, effectively saying to Sinn Fein that it can't have it both ways.

Sinn Fein's attitude to policing, another key issue in Northern Ireland, is also contradictory. To date, it refuses to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and refuses to sit on any policing boards, which were set up in 2001. The policing boards are one example of how the British government has tried to make policing in Northern Ireland more accountable and equitable; it also changed the name from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the PSNI, something that wasn't easy for unionists, given the number of RUC men who had been killed by the IRA.

Sinn Fein spokesman on policing and justice, Gerry Kelly, recently told the party's conference: "The police force has been a partisan, political, protestant and paramilitary force." An obvious way to try to change this would be to encourage nationalists to join, something that the PSNI would be happy to facilitate, given its 50-50 recruitment policy of Protestants and Catholics. At present, the ratio of Protestants to Catholics is 80:20, although the number of new Catholic recruits has risen from 22% in 1999 to 35% in 2005. "Whilst the lack of full political and full community support for policing has at times presented its challenges", says Sinead Simpson, director of policy at the Northern Ireland Policing Board, "those who have withheld support for policing and stood outside the work of the board and district policing partnerships, have not halted progress".

An endorsement from Sinn Fein would make a huge difference, however. It is possible that Sinn Fein will revise its policy of non-endorsement, although it won't come easy for them – at its recent party conference, 30% of delegates actually voted for a motion calling on the party never to endorse any Northern Ireland police force, unless Ireland is reunified. A special Sinn Fein conference to discuss policing is planned for later in 2006 – and those Sinn Fein members who wish to support the PSNI will have a real battle on their hands.

Old habits die hard

Despite the IRA's commitment of political ends to achieve a united Ireland, a number of highly publicised incidents shows that the IRA's old Mafia habits are dying hard. It is alleged that the IRA were behind the £26 million robbery of the Northern Bank in December 2004. It is further alleged that IRA men killed Robert McCartney in a Belfast pub brawl, and that an IRA member killed Joseph Rafferty in a personal dispute in Dublin. The McCartney case became particularly notorious, as details emerged of how the men involved carried out a clean-up operation of the murder scene and intimidated numerous witnesses, making the PSNI's investigation very difficult.

This case also illustrates the double standards and hypocrisies of republicans: the IRA men involved in the killing had earlier that day been attending a commemoration in Derry, for the innocent victims of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when British paratroopers shot dead fourteen unarmed civilians during a civil-rights march. This irony seemed to have been lost on the IRA and on Sinn Fein, who for years called for a public inquiry into Bloody Sunday. By November 2005, the British government had spent an estimated £163 million on the Bloody Sunday inquiry; Sinn Fein couldn't even bring themselves to encourage witnesses to the McCartney killing to go directly to the PSNI, saying instead that witnesses should contact their solicitors.

The McCartney killing and the Northern Bank robbery meant that a huge amount of media attention has been focused on republicans; in the midst of this, it seems to be forgotten that loyalist paramilitaries have made no moves towards decommissioning their arsenals – indeed one of them, the Ulster Defence Association, has explicitly ruled it out. Furthermore, the bulk of paramilitary killings in 2005 involved loyalists killing loyalists, and while Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and George W Bush are each familiar with the Robert McCartney case, they are probably less familiar with the murder of Lisa Dorian, who, it is alleged, was killed by LVF members in February 2005.

Both republican and loyalist paramilitaries are still heavily involved in criminality. Recently there have been a number of well-publicised police raids in Dublin and surrounding counties on businesses suspected of being part of the IRA's multi-million pound criminal empire. The latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (established to monitor paramilitary activity) while "generally positive", also says that the IRA is still involved in intelligence gathering, and may have retained some of its weapons, which were supposed to have been decommissioned in September 2005. Yet another problem that has been largely by-passed by the southern media is the ongoing low-level intimidation of Catholics in certain areas of Northern Ireland, such as the village of Ahoghill, in Antrim, particularly where they are in the minority.

The wood from the trees?

Despite these many problems, it is undeniable that Northern Ireland, while still a deeply divided society, has made enormous progress enjoyed since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and has enjoyed a long period of relative peace. There were at most five murders linked to paramilitaries in 2004; ten years previously, there were sixty-four.

The Orange Order protesters in Dublin, while protesting about what they see as wrong with the process, are inadvertently demonstrating the great strides made in reconciliation between the two traditions on the island of Ireland. Even a Sinn Fein member of the Irish parliament said that the marchers "should be accommodated."

It is well worth noting that in comparison with the other peace processes birthed in the mid-1990s, such as in Palestine/Israel, Sri Lanka, the Basque country, and Colombia, the Northern Ireland peace process – as flawed, and as painful, and as exasperating, and as stop-start as it is – has been by far the most successful. The peace process's detractors, who continually abhor the "appeasement" and "pusillanimity" of the British and Irish governments, ignore this.

One of Ireland's best-known journalists, Kevin Myers has written, for example: "The melancholy truth is that this State lacked the political will to strangle armed republican terrorism in its heartland; instead, it slithered into a policy of abject appeasement, now known as 'the peace process.'" The DUP's Ian Paisley, employing the Biblical imagery he's so fond of, has said that he wants to see the IRA humiliated in "sackcloth and ashes."

Though Kevin Myers and Ian Paisley may fantasise about a total military defeat of the IRA, in a liberal democracy a total military defeat of an organisation like the IRA belongs in fantasyland – which is also where the IRA's ultimate goal, a united Ireland, currently resides. The IRA is neither defeated nor victorious. But the fact remains that because of the peace process, today it is Northern Ireland's politicians – and not its paramilitaries – doing the fighting.

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