Tony Blair recently tried to convince leaders in Israel and Palestine that their ongoing conflict could be solved by rational, civil negotiation. The British prime minister compared the struggling peace process to Northern Ireland’s problems, saying it might take “as many years to get people round a table to talk about their differences and solve it.”Blair’s efforts to promote peace are admirable, but his statement implies that Northern Ireland’s biggest problems have been solved when in reality the 1998 Good Friday peace accord has barely remained intact since its creation three years ago. Although the IRA finally began last month to keep its promise to decommission its paramilitary weapons, the larger picture is bleaker. On Nov. 6, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble won re-election as first minister of the power-sharing assembly only after a last-minute compromise, following a failed first vote the week before.
In February 2000, the British government suspended home rule by Northern Ireland’s Legislature because the IRA refused to destroy its weapons. Home rule returned to Northern Ireland in May 2000, but a new sense of cooperation did not. Nationalist politicians like Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein member and former IRA commander, continue to clash with hard-line unionists, who believe that Sinn Fein’s ties to the IRA should justify the party’s exclusion.
Last fall I visited Belfast and met representatives of both sides. At Stormont Castle, the Legislature’s home, two military police officers in the Democratic Unionist Party spoke to my tour group in one of the official chambers. The men explained why Sinn Fein members do not deserve to sit in the chairs in which we students then sat. Although they rightly criticized Sinn Fein for its IRA connections, neither MP mentioned loyalist paramilitary groups, which share as much guilt as the IRA for perpetuating the conflict.
After that visit, our group drove to a Sinn Fein recruitment office building. A young party activist named Brian explained eloquently how the unionists were derailing the Good Friday agreement by disrupting legislative negotiations. I was nearly convinced that Sinn Fein was the victim, but one omission made me think again. The only active nationalist paramilitary group, said Brian, is the so-called Real IRA, an isolated terrorist group with no political ties.
What bothered me most was not his denial of the murky Sinn Fein-IRA relationship, but rather his defense of the IRA. Brian said that Sinn Fein cannot apologize for the IRA’s past terrorist activities, which were necessary before the British government agreed to talk with the Sinn Fein. With that last statement, I began to understand how a unionist might feel about sitting at a negotiation table with former members of the IRA, who justify murder when it supports their political cause.
Tony Blair understands the intricacies of Northern Irish politics all too well, which is why he should be more precise in his statements. Blair must avoid the temptation to lecture other nations when he knows that rational negotiation can succeed only when all of the players are willing to listen to each other.