Allan Massie: Cameron does not have his Troubles to seek
Violence in Belfast is the direct result of an unsatisfactory agreement, but it is not the sign of worse to come, writes Allan Massie
Northern Ireland has changed. Given the coverage of rioting in recent weeks and the renewed, if sporadic and comparatively low-key, activity on the part of dissident Republican groups, this observation may seem odd. Nevertheless the response of so many in the province is evidence that there has indeed been a change. They appear less afraid that they are seeing a return to the bad old days of the Troubles than of the consequences of the protests and rioting for the tourist trade and inward investment. To put it another way, the fear is that the return of, even by old standards, limited violence might disturb the precarious stability achieved since the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of devolved government.
There is another change. As the Spectator magazine put it in a leading article last weekend, “David Cameron seems to be doing his best to pretend that nothing is happening”. The implication is that he should be taking action. When there was rioting in London and other English cities in the summer of 2011, the Prime Minister returned from holiday and took charge. Shouldn’t he be doing the same in Belfast? Actually, no. Suppose there were riots in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Would Alex Salmond welcome intervention from David Cameron? The question answers itself.
Restoring order would be the responsibility of the devolved Scottish Government. Only if it felt the need for the Army would the UK government have a part to play. The same is true in Northern Ireland. There is a devolved government there, a government which is now responsible for policing. Public order is its business, not London’s. Cameron had a role to play when there was rioting in England because there is no English devolved government; he has no role to play in Northern Ireland at present, unless the chief ministers there, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness ask for troops.
The Spectator editorial goes further. The legacy of the Good Friday Agreement is “institutional instability”. In one sense this is nonsense. Power-sharing, or, as the magazine prefers, “power-splitting“ – has resulted in political stability, even a political freeze. You have what looks like a permanent coalition between the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and Sinn Fein. The middle parties – the UUP, the (official) Ulster Unionists and the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) were squeezed. This was unfortunate. It was regrettable. But it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. It is easy to say that peace should have been made “from the centre out”, much harder to see how this might have been done. As Tony Blair’s then chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, said to the SDLP leader, Seamus Mallon, “you don’t have any guns”. That’s why Mallon and the UUP’s David Trimble were sidelined in the negotiations. They didn’t have any guns, and getting the guns out of politics was the first aim.
It was shabby. Violence, bigotry and sectarianism were rewarded; the moderates were disregarded. Yet it is difficult, even impossible, to see how it could have been otherwise. The peace process required Sinn Fein/IRA and the DUP, with links to the Loyalist paramilitaries, to come to the negotiating table. They had influence – in the case of Sinn Fein, more than influence – over the gunmen. The UUP and SDLP had none.
Power-sharing or power-splitting has had mixed results. Violence has been sharply reduced, though not ended. Most of the province has enjoyed what the rest of the UK rightly regards as normality. Despite the recession, economic prospects are much brighter than seemed possible a generation ago. The Republican demand for a United Ireland has been tacitly shelved, for the time being anyway. The growing Catholic middle-class participates in business and public administration. Sectarian discrimination has diminished; inter-marriage is more common.
On the other hand, in the poorer parts of the province, divisions are as sharp as ever, and even more noticeable. More so-called ”peace walls” have been erected, separating Protestant streets and communities from Catholic ones, and vice-versa. It is almost as if, in contrast to the integration further up the social and financial scale, de facto apartheid, or separate development, is being enacted in poor quarters – except that for many there is precious little development. The old Protestant working-class is losing ground, and fears that it will not be long before Belfast has a Catholic majority.
It is such fears and the resentments they breed which have animated the violent protests of the last few weeks: the issue of the Union flag being flown over Belfast City Chambers is merely the trigger or excuse. Not all the protests have been spontaneous; there is evidence of organisation by Loyalist paramilitaries, who call people into the streets and tell them when it is time to go home.
The protests will probably fade away just as the English riots did, because that is the way things happen when exhaustion sets in and the first exhilaration is over. Meanwhile the fundamental issue for the politicians, and especially for Peter Robinson and the DUP. will be how they respond to the disaffection of a large part of the Protestant working-class, their own natural supporters,.
This is however essentially a political problem and no matter how dispiriting these weeks of violent protests may be, the political order is evidently holding. That is itself evidence of how Northern Ireland has changed. The recognition that dealing with the outcome of these weeks is a matter for the Northern Ireland administration, not for David Cameron and the UK government, is a sign of progress.
It might be preferable if that administration was in the hands of the centre parties, rather than Sinn Fein and the DUP but it isn’t. Things are as they are, and they could be a lot worse. Nobody is talking of a return to the worst days of the Troubles. Nobody is suggesting a return to direct rule from London. Normality will be restored and even the tourist trade will revive in the summer.