Irish peace process - “Returning to Unionist dominance can only lead to trouble”

by Theo Russell

A BROAD panel of parties warned at a public meeting in Westminster last week that if the stagnation in the Irish peace process is not overcome: “There is a danger of the tide turning against the process.”

The meeting, organised by Sinn Féin and chaired by Michelle Guildernew MP, included speakers from the Labour Party, Alliance Party and the Irish community in Britain. The panel reflected the coalition of parties that backed proposals last year from US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland Richard Haass to resolve issues undermining the peace process.

Liberal-Democrat peer and former Alliance Party leader John Alderdice described the situation in the North of Ireland as “frustrating and depressing,” warning: “If we continue down the road of returning to Unionist dominance, it can only lead to trouble.” He said: “Politicians in London are not paying attention, and not realising the dangers.”

Former Labour MP Alf Dubs also warned of “growing signs that all is not well with the peace process,” and said: “If it collapses, the result will be joint British and Irish rule, not rule from London.”

Dubs said: “Although the Saville Enquiry took 10 years, most people agreed it was a step forward but something needs to be done about Finucane and Ballymurphy, they are sores that need to be lanced.”

He said “many young people, especially in the Loyalist community, now feel that they have nothing to lose they have gained nothing from the peace process, and there’s a drift into the Loyalist organisations”.

Sinn Féin MP Connor Murphy described the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the agreements which followed as “the greatest achievement of the Labour government in Britain,” but said: “The failure to follow up the process has left many issues festering — parades, flags, the legacy of conflict — and there is a danger of the tide turning against the process.”

Murphy said: “Reduced funding year on year is crippling our ability to deliver public services, while a human rights bill, Irish language law and a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, all of which were promised in earlier agreements, have not happened.”

He said this combination of circumstances meant that: “The fundamentals of the process are being very seriously challenged.”

Baroness Angela Smith, a former Labour Northern Ireland minister, recalled that the GFA was backed by 71 per cent of the people of the North of Ireland on an 80 per cent turnout but said: “To consolidate the process the past role of the British government, including the Ballymurphy Massacre, needs to be dealt with.”

She said that in meetings with coalition Northern Ireland ministers Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers: “There is no real engagement — they just don’t get it.”

Jennie McShannon, Chief Executive of Irish in Britain, said that a massive positive development for the Irish people in Britain was that “we are no longer a suspect community”, but added: “The stagnation of the political process puts this in danger.” She also said the coalition’s austerity measures were leading to “increased crime and violence, and deterring foreign investors in the North of Ireland”.

Warnings about the peace process have mounted in recent weeks. On 6th October a group of senior US politicians and diplomats wrote to leaders in the north of Ireland urging them to end the political stalemate. Ten days later David Cameron made an extremely rare speech on Ireland, calling for renewed talks to “lift the blockages” undermining the power-sharing executive’s work.

But the reality is that the Tory-led coalition in London has shown little interest in the peace process, preferring to stand back while the Unionist parties and Loyalist groups have blocked progress and clashes between the two communities have intensified.

Last year Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party backed The Haass proposals to restart the peace process, but the Unionist parties failed to back the package while the coalition government failed effectively did nothing.

All the Northern Ireland secretaries of state under the coalition have been from the Tory party, which historically has had close ties with Northern Irish Unionism.

Representatives of the Ballymurphy Massacre Campaign will be in London on Wednesday 10 December to hold a protest outside the Houses of Parliament followed by a public meeting.