Wealth of Nations March 2005

A Strange Twist in the Politics of Northern Ireland

Recent developments in Northern Ireland offer some sobering lessons for those who would negotiate with terrorists.
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Until recently, the British and Irish governments had dared to hope that the problem of Northern Irish terrorism had been solved. Lessons about managing bitter civil conflict were being tentatively drawn in that corner of the world and beyond. One such lesson went roughly like this: As difficult as it may be to accept the fact, terrorists cannot always, or even usually, be defeated by force of arms alone. In the end, they must be negotiated with. Once that uncomfortable truth is grasped by all sides, however, even the most deep-rooted grievances can be overcome. Northern Ireland had seemed to prove it—or at least to offer one example of success.

After a series of sinister and bizarre developments, that conclusion is looking shaky. The mood of nervous optimism over Ulster is gone.

Sinn Fein, long understood to be the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, has already tasted legitimized political power in the North. After the recent moves toward a settlement (as it seemed) of the Troubles, the party was able to appoint ministers in the province's government—this, in effect, was its political reward for a sustained IRA cease-fire.

True, it was a shame, as the British and Irish governments conceded, that the deal-making had empowered the extremists. On the Catholic side, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party was squeezed out by Sinn Fein. On the Protestant side, the moderate Unionist Party was put under great pressure by the militant Democratic Unionists. Why did this shift of power to the extremes happen? Simple, really. Parties aligned with or sympathetic to terrorists were being allowed to dictate the province's political future. Why support politicians who made themselves irrelevant by pledging themselves to peaceful negotiation?

That was an ugly reality, to be sure. And there were others. The Troubles subsided, but paramilitary crime continued to flourish—protection rackets, punishment beatings and shootings, and the rest. The terrorists on both sides continued to run their scams and rule their fiefs. And there was the small matter of the Sinn Fein men arrested in Colombia for training anti-government paramilitaries in urban warfare.

Still, the prevailing view had been that all of this, however regrettable, was a price worth paying. If the terrorists and their allies could be persuaded to stop bombing in exchange for a portion of political power, so be it. Democracy would civilize them.

Meanwhile, support for the moderate Unionists, representing the Protestant majority in the province, drained away to such an extent that by last December, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists were poised to share power there in a restored government. In the end, that deal stalled because the IRA refused to bow to the Democratic Unionists' demand that it should supply photographic evidence of disarmament. That is why, for now, the province is again being run from London. But it seemed only a matter of time before this last remaining obstacle would be overcome. Sinn Fein would then complete its transition to genuinely democratic politics—and not just in the North. The party had begun to challenge for a share of power in the Irish Republic, as well. In the next elections there, to be held by 2007, it could plausibly hope to hold a controlling bloc of seats in the Irish parliament.

Then, just before Christmas, a group of meticulously prepared robbers stole $50 million from the Northern Bank of Belfast. In unusually forthright terms, the police, both in the North and in the Republic, blamed the IRA. Sinn Fein denied that it or the IRA was involved. The Independent Monitoring Commission, which seeks to ensure that the paramilitaries observe their (qualified) cease-fire, then declared not only that the IRA had indeed carried out the raid, but also that Sinn Fein's leaders—past and would-be ministers in the province's government, the men negotiating with Britain and Ireland over the North's constitutional future—had sanctioned the operation.

The Republic's government feels especially aggrieved. In December it suggested, as a way to advance the talks on restoring a government in the North, that the IRA should renounce all its criminal activities. The IRA refused. Now Ireland's prime minister, Bertie Ahern, appears to believe that Sinn Fein was planning its heist while in negotiations with his government.

Sensationally, on February 20, the Republic's justice minister, Michael McDowell, broke a taboo that had been observed for decades, outing Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Martin Ferris as members of the ruling council of the IRA. For years, it had been convenient for all three sides—the British government, the Irish government, and the republican terrorists—to pretend that Sinn Fein and the IRA were separate organizations. This made it possible for the governments to negotiate with terrorists while claiming not to be. It is a sign of the two governments' dismay and exasperation, especially in the Republic, that this pretense has been abandoned.

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