The vacuum continues

In an exclusive interview with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, asks whether the current Good Friday Review will bring Northern Ireland any closer to a settlement

Four weeks prior to the current Good Friday Review, two hoax pipe bombs were found in the grounds of the Holy Cross Primary School. The loyalist UDA claimed responsibility. The school, in the heart of North Belfast, has become synonymous with the enduring sectarianism of Northern Ireland after the summer of 2001 saw daily loyalist protest and nightly riots as the two communities collided bitterly over the right of the Catholic pupils to walk the route to school across a Protestant road.

The hoax, although harmless, dredged up those recent memories of what Kelly, an Assembly member for the area, claims is one of the most inexcusable of recent events, “with the whole world arguing against loyalist violence…for someone to then do this has a traumatic effect.”

The trauma that has engulfed this small area of the province illustrates the incomplete nature of peace in Northern Ireland, Kelly claims that the area has been the scene of around two-fifths of all violence throughout the history of the conflict. Smouldering sectarianism flares up with the July bonfires, opposing mobs pelt each other and the police, leaving the Ardoyne as one of the most strongly polarised regions in Northern Ireland.

Loyalist and republican houses stand alongside whole streets of creaking abandoned terraces, the unemployment rate is the second highest in Northern Ireland, with few businesses keen to relocate to the area. The centre parties of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists have all but ceded the Ardoyne to the now nationally dominant radicals, Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s DUP.

The perpetual conflict has remained cemented in place for years, in no small part due to the DUP’s refusal to meet with Sinn Fein. “We need to show leadership. Throughout that period the DUP took a blunt approach,” says Kelly. He argues that refusing dialogue has meant that “by extension we are ignoring the nationalist vote.”

Kelly’s past may make this relunctance understandable. As part of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade he was arrested with three others in London shortly after the bombing of the Old Bailey in 1973, and was part of the largest prison escape in Europe since World War Two when in 1983, 38 IRA inmates broke out from Long Kesh prison. Today the Maze, as Long Kesh came to be known, lies as an unused monolith.

The events of 20 and 30 years ago are not the issue for Kelly now. He angrily refuted the view that the republican movement is necessarily violent, “[republicanism] adapted to circumstances that can bring a United Ireland about. The view that republicanism is endemically violent is simplified.” He points to the oppressive nature of the unionist regime that galvanised the Provisional IRA into action, describing Northern Ireland as an “apartheid state.” In this context, the DUP’s long-held refusal to meet with Sinn Fein may have reason behind it, but negotiation for a peaceful settlement needs “more than one side.”

However, the DUP’s steadfast approach is now slipping. In years gone by, they refused to attend meetings with Sinn Fein present. Now, the two are opposite each other in the Good Friday Review, with a bolstered mandate to bend the ears of both the Irish and British governments.

Paisley has also subtly dropped his policy of rejectionism and has now been the focus of the talks. He has a new plan for devolution: his famous renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement that no one credited his party as having the imagination to create. The plan’s principles end the enforced coalition of all four major parties at Stormont that occurred before, in place of a voluntary coalition and the select committee chairs heading departments instead of “unaccountable ministers.”

It is a fine theory that he is keen to coax the moderate SDLP into accepting. However, the practical implications are not lost on Sinn Fein. With no unionist party ever contemplating coalition with republicans, it effectively freezes the majority nationalist party out of government.

Kelly describes this as a “move back to majoritarianism”, contrary to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. On the other hand, Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist Party criticised the DUP’s plan as soft on republicans, allowing decommissioning to be fudged, a point of view that Kelly quickly dismissed as “very naïve or very ill-informed”.

The delivery of IRA decommissioning has been central to the unionist demands of the peace process. Ironically, the largest act that Northern Ireland has seen, last October, led to the knives being drawn on David Trimble, once the architect of unionist acquiescence to the Good Friday Agreement.

The secrecy that surrounded the content of the decommissioning infuriated the unionist community; Lady Sylvia Hermann, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down, recently dismissed it as inconsequential. Kelly finds this attitude to be small minded, “after the IRA acted and Sinn Fein held their part of events…Trimble pulled out of it.” This rejection by unionism has served to perpetuate the political vacuum that the review finds itself to be conducted in, and played into the hands of the DUP.

While the British and Irish governments remain united on the focus of further decommissioning, events away from the negotiating table have illustrated divisions over matters from the past. Six investigations, led by Judge Corey, into controversial killings in Ireland, have been met with mixed response from the governments. The two investigations in the Republic have launched a public inquiry, after they found evidence of Gardai (Republic of Ireland’s Police) complicity in the murder of two RUC officers by the IRA.

The reports into four deaths in Northern Ireland, which include the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane by the UDA in 1989, and the shooting of loyalist leader Billy Wright inside the Maze prison in 1997 by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), have been shelved with no date for publication. Kelly described the alienation on the nationalist community caused by this decision as “huge, I don’t think people see the sense in it…here we have a game, a refusal with a volume of excuses.”

Life for most in Northern Ireland continues regardless of the posturing of politicians. The Ardoyne remains at the sharp end for both communities. Kelly believes that with the loyalist hoax devices in the Holy Cross and a bomb alert in wider Belfast the following week emanating from the same group, the review is losing its grip and failing to deliver the Good Friday Agreement. “My worry for North Belfast is that Blair will ignore loyalist violence when the IRA is on cessation.”