Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process: In Defence of Politics, by Paul Dixon, Palgrave Macmillan, 316 pp, €72.79, ISBN: 978-3319913421
Although Paul Dixon would not go as far as Bill Clinton, who in a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, described it as “a work of surpassing genius”, he does laud it as a “triumph of politics and representative democracy”. He has little patience with those who would wish to rain on the parade of self-congratulation which was much in evidence in the various conferences and seminars marking the anniversary. He criticises those unionists and what he refers to as “neo-conservative” academics who attacked Tony Blair for concluding the conflict with a set of grubby deals and deceptions that sacrificed justice, in particular for victims, for peace. He also argues that those who criticise the agreement for not creating a framework for dealing with the past and victims or for not addressing the deep ethnic divide in the North, are missing the fundamental purpose of the accord which was to deliver peace – not a perfect peace, but one that ended the IRA’s violent campaign against the British state and unionism.
Dixon, a self-confessed “left realist”, writes in support of the politicians who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement using their political skills, including deception and hypocrisy, to bring about a historic compromise between unionism and republicanism. His title reflects his central argument that, given the apparently irreconcilable objectives of unionists and republicans, only a large degree of ambiguity of terminology and the spinning of distinct messages to different constituencies could have ensured success. Thus the use of the theatrical metaphor: politics as a stage; politicians as actors and the public/electorate as the audience. Dixon points out that this metaphor was a common manner of describing the peace process at its height used by politicians, journalists and media commentators, with frequent references to “behind the scenes”, “back stage” and “smoke and mirrors”.
At the time it could have a pejorative tone, but Dixon makes the case that without deception the success of the peace process would have been impossible. Thus Tony Blair’s pledges to unionists during the referendum campaign that without decommissioning there would be no early release of prisoners and no inclusion of Sinn Féin in government were justifiable deceptions, for without these the agreement would have been rejected by unionists. However, he does qualify this judgement by arguing that having deceived his unionist audience Blair should subsequently have driven a harder bargain with the leadership of Sinn Féin to push for decommissioning and an end to the continued activities of the IRA. It was this failure and not the original deception which undermined the position of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party.
On the republican side Dixon points to the “TUAS” document circulated to IRA volunteers in the months leading up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire. The initials could be read as “Totally Unarmed Strategy”, the message for the two governments and international opinion being that the ceasefire was permanent; or as “Tactical Use of Armed Struggle”, the message for the IRA volunteers that armed struggle was a tactic to be used when necessary and if the ceasefire did not produce results it could be reverted to later. As a result, the calling off of the IRA’s campaign without a declaration by the British of an intention to withdraw, or even of a willingness on their part to adopt the role of “persuaders” for a united Ireland, was a startling, even shocking, decision for many republicans. As the TUAS document stated, it was a high-risk strategy. Critics including the former IRA volunteer Anthony McIntyre and Bernadette Devlin lambasted Adams for not admitting to the republican base that they had signed up for a partitionist settlement. As Dixon points out, any such admission would have had potentially lethal consequences for Adams, while his critics then and since have singularly failed to elaborate an alternative strategy with any popular resonance.
Dixon criticises John Bew, Martyn Frampton and Iñigo Gurruchaga in their book Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country where, he claims, they argue that the republican embrace of the peace process was a product of their military defeat. He charges them with a “neo-conservative” embrace of “hard power” and the “dirty war” strategy of the British state. Strong stuff, which sent me back to reread the book, whose central arguments do not appear to differ substantially from Dixon’s own analysis:
it would seem that that a combination of war weariness, the loyalist backlash and the growing effectiveness of the security forces in infiltrating and interdicting the IRA’s campaign was having an impact upon republicans. It is true that the British had been unable to achieve a decisive military victory over the IRA, but their policy of containment and attrition had undoubtedly taken a toll.
Perhaps this is an academic example of the narcissism of small differences?
Dixon argues that the IRA was not defeated but he appears to agree with Ed Moloney’s Secret History of the IRA in its depiction of the peace process as a form of counter-revolution and Gerry Adams as a Machiavellian using ambiguity, deception, dishonesty and outright lies to bring about a ceasefire and the final and certain political and military defeat of Irish republicanism. However, while Moloney’s book has a tone of regret about the interment of the IRA’s revolutionary vocation, Dixon sees it as a belated recognition of reality and in particular the fact that the main obstacle to republican objectives was the unionist population of Northern Ireland, not the British state.
As a result of this focus on the skills which were necessary to broker the agreement, and the defence of those skills against “idealist” critics of various stripes, certain issues which have emerged since 1998 do not feature, specifically concerning the victims of paramilitary and state violence and broader questions around dealing with the past. Neither, surprisingly, does Brexit and the potentially destabilising effects it could have on the institutions of the agreement. Two-thirds of unionists voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. A survey conducted by academics from the universities of Cardiff and Edinburgh in 2018 found that eighty-seven per cent of “Leave” voters in Northern Ireland thought that Brexit was more important than the collapse of the peace process. Of course this deep popular unionist disillusion with the agreement has many causes but it in part reflects a visceral rejection of just the sort of peace process choreography that Dixon so effectively delineates in this important book.
Henry Patterson is Emeritus Professor of Irish Politics at the Ulster University. He is currently working on the Fermanagh volume of the Irish Revolution 1912-1923