Irish Peace Process Revived
Canadian dollars and a terrorist bomb. The two may not have much in common, but both symbolized the mixture of messages emerging from Northern Ireland last week as self-government returned to the troubled province. The Canadian funds - a $200-million investment by Montreal's Bombardier Inc. - amounted to a vote of confidence in Northern Ireland's future now that the long-stalled peace process is once again under way. "We're encouraged by the progress," declared Bombardier Aerospace president Michael Graff, unveiling a program to create 1,200 new jobs at the company's Short Brothers subsidiary in Belfast. But only hours later, just before dawn last Thursday, a far more ominous portent literally exploded beneath London's Hammersmith Bridge. The bomb, almost certainly the work of Irish Republican Army dissidents, served as a grim reminder that Ulster's agonies are far from a final resolution.
Nobody was injured and, at week's end, no organization had claimed responsibility for the blast, which inflicted only minor damage on the bridge, a major artery across the Thames River in southwest London. But the operation bore all the fingerprints of IRA hardline splinter groups dedicated to scuttling the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, under which Northern Ireland's Protestant and Roman Catholic communities have agreed to share political power in an effort to bring an end to the province's 30 years of sectarian strife. The explosives used - two kilos of East European-manufactured Semtex plastic - have long been favoured by the IRA's bomb-makers. Hammersmith Bridge, a graceful 113-year-old historical landmark of green steel and weathered concrete, has twice before been an IRA target, the last time in 1996 when 17 kilos of Semtex failed to explode. Finally, the timing itself was significant, occurring on the same day as Ulster's power-sharing executive convened at Stormont Castle outside Belfast for its first meeting since it disintegrated earlier this year over the mainstream IRA's refusal to publicly disarm.
Certainly, security officials in England, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are under no illusion as to the identity of the culprits. "I am not going to speculate," insisted deputy assistant commissioner Alan Fry, head of the London Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist branch."But clearly Irish terrorists of some sort would be a line of inquiry." Back in Belfast, John Taylor, deputy leader of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, was more forthcoming. "I would expect it to be the breakaway groups within the republican movement, something like the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA," he said as he emerged from a party gathering at Stormont in the wake of the bomb blast. "Clearly, their objective is to upset the Provisional IRA program of putting its arms out of use."
It was that decision by the Provisionals, as the mainstream IRA is called, that finally put the peace process back on track. Under pressure by both the Irish government in Dublin and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, the clandestine army reluctantly agreed last month to a scheme to put its arsenal - thought to include 100 tonnes of Semtex as well as scores of light and heavy weapons - "completely and verifiably beyond use." Rather than submit to outright arms decommissioning as sought by the Protestants, the IRA consented to regular inspection of its secret arms dumps in the Irish republic by a two-member team of international inspectors, composed of former Finnish president Marti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary general of South Africa's African National Congress. That move, in turn, allowed Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble two weeks ago to win - by a razor-thin 56-vote margin - the approval of his party's 800-member ruling council to re-enter government alongside members of Sinn Fein.
Hardliners on both sides of the sectarian divide are determined to topple the fragile edifice outlined in the Good Friday agreement: a 12-member executive led by Trimble, the 108-member assembly elected last year in an Ulster-wide vote and the half-dozen planned but not-yet-implemented "cross-border" institutions designed to facilitate co-operation between Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the British government in London. And if last week's bombing is any indication, they have the means to disrupt the process.
In terms of numbers, the republican dissidents in Ulster's Catholic community are insignificant. Security officials in Belfast and Dublin estimate that there are no more than 25 to 45 experienced field operatives in the Real IRA and even fewer in the more ideological, less violent Continuity IRA. But they are capable of wreaking great havoc. It was the Real IRA that was responsible for the worst atrocity in 30 years of civil strife, the car bomb explosion on the main street of Omagh in Ulster in August, 1998, that killed 29 people. The fear is that the bomb at Hammersmith Bridge may signal the start of another terrorist campaign by Irish dissidents.
Seven months ago, Scotland Yard announced that Britain was on its highest level of terrorist alert since 1998 because of the threat posed by Irish republican terrorists. Since that warning, the Gardai, the Irish police, have foiled several attempts to ship arms and explosives to Britain. Last October, a Gardai raid on a Real IRA bunker and underground firing range confirmed fears that the group's leader had been able to open a new arms supply from the Balkans.
In the Protestant camp, the opposition to everything contained in the Good Friday agreement is less inclined to violence but is a lot noisier. Led by the irrepressible Rev. Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party, the dissidents are determined to tear the peace process to shreds. Last week, Paisley's DUP agreed to take up the two seats they are entitled to occupy on the Northern Ireland executive but only in the hope of rendering the entire process unworkable. "We intend to defeat," vowed DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, "an agenda that is aimed at achieving a united Ireland."
Ironically, Robinson's east Belfast constituency is likely to be the most direct beneficiary of Bombardier's $200-million investment. It is the site of Short Brothers' principal operations: the aerospace factories that supply fuselages and engine casings for Bombardier's Canadair regional jets and the company's Challenger and Global Express business jets. Bombardier is already the largest single employer in Northern Ireland, with a workforce of 6,020 and will increase that number by 20 per cent over the next three years.
Many of the new workers will be Catholics, in line with Bombardier's ongoing attempts to bridge Ulster's sectarian divide. Once the bastion of Protestant workers alone, Short Brothers now boasts a workforce in which Catholics make up 15 per cent. "We're proud of our record here," said Bombardier Aerospace president Graff. "If we can deliver a measure of economic benefit that will help secure a better and more stable future for everyone in this community, we'll be even more proud." Most of Northern Ireland's war-weary population would likely agree with that view. But there are still a dangerous few who would prefer to throw bombs, both real ones as well as the rhetorical kind.
Maclean's June 12, 2000