IRA ceasefire: cementing a hard-won peace

20 years on, no significant section of either community wants a return to the bad old days

Frustration with the never-ending political stalemate in the North pales into insignificance by comparison with the decades of violence that blighted the region. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

Frustration with the never-ending political stalemate in the North pales into insignificance by comparison with the decades of violence that blighted the region. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

 

Ireland, North and South, has made immeasurable progress since the second IRA ceasefire 20 years ago. Although residual sectarian conflict is an ongoing problem the comparative peace has allowed a younger generation to grow up on an island no longer subject to the everyday threat of sudden and catastrophic violence.

The invisible Border has played an important role in winning nationalists over to the benefits of peaceful accommodation

The benefits of peace are impossible to quantify but its impact has been clearly felt in Northern Ireland, where no significant section of either community wants to see a return to the bad old days. There are obvious frustrations with the never-ending political stalemate in the North, and there is evidence that community tensions remain as embedded as ever. But these problems pale into insignificance by comparison with the decades of violence that blighted the region. The danger, however, is that in the absence of a genuine political accommodation inter-community tensions could escalate and provide fertile ground for the tiny number of extremists plotting a return to violence.

At some stage there will be a return to direct rule from Westminster if the parties cannot agree among themselves

There is also the looming issue of Brexit, which has the capacity to undermine some of the advantages of peace. The invisible Border has played an important role in winning nationalists over to the benefits of peaceful accommodation so the likely return of a hard Border will be a hugely negative development. This makes it imperative for the two biggest parties in the North, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, to find some way around the difficulties that have prevented them from reaching an agreement that would allow the restoration of the powersharing institutions at Stormont.

The deadline for agreement has been put back a number of times, with the latest one being the autumn. It cannot be postponed indefinitely and at some stage there will be a return to direct rule from Westminster if the parties cannot agree among themselves. This would reflect very poorly on the political skills of both the DUP and Sinn Féin and in the longer run could have very serious implications for the continuation of peace given the determination of a handful of republican dissidents to reignite violence.

Sheridan told how, when a police officer, the late Martin McGuinness had on three occasions tried to have him killed

One of the most striking features in this newspaper’s week-long series marking the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire was an interview by our Northern Editor Gerry Moriarty with Cooperation Ireland chief executive Peter Sheridan. In it Sheridan told how, when he was a police officer, the late Martin McGuinness had on three occasions tried to have him killed yet, after the ceasefire, they both worked together as best they could to ensure that it worked.

If those two men could come to an accommodation and work together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland then surely Sinn Féin and the DUP can do the same. The people they were elected to serve deserve no less.

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