Insighful profile of players and process

Ken Keable reviews Breaking the Bonds: making peace in Northern Ireland by Fionnuala O Connor, Mainstream Publishing, £9.99 pbk

THIS IS a witty, informative and immensely readable canter through the current political landscape of Northern Ireland, transformed not only by the Good Friday agreement but also by the general election of June 2001 in which Sinn Féin overtook the SDLP for the first time.

The extensive pen-portraits of all the main players and parties are incisive and illustrated with pithy quotations from observers, officials, and politicians, all of whom made their comments on condition of anonymity.

It is further enlivened with cartoons by Ian Knox and there are several chapters of well-argued, up-to-date analysis. They show nationalism advancing, unionism in pathetic disarray.

The author doesn’t omit to praise those she doesn’t like (Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness) or criticise those she does (John Hume): “Hume has many gifts, but organisation is not one of them.” She gives many reasons why nationalists are swinging from the SDLP to Sinn Féin despite the IRA’s violent past. Sinn Féin is better organised, more disciplined and professional, younger, more ambitious, and projects an image that reflects the new self-confidence of the nationalist community, she argues.

The SDLP on the other hand appears to have reached the peak of its ambition when the devolved power-sharing executive was set up.

She overlooks two points. Firstly, while Sinn Féin is essential to the peace process (because it alone can keep sceptical republican militarists on board), the SDLP isn’t.

Secondly, although there must be many nationalists who will never forgive the IRA, and hence Sinn Féin, for its violent past, there must be many who take an entirely different view because their community has suffered so much from British and unionist violence, official and unofficial —- accompanied by oceans of humbug and injustice.

Her account of David Trimble (“divided internally”) is devastating: “David Trimble might be a riddle not worth solving, a minor political talent inflated to a significance well beyond his capability. In some exasperated minds, Trimble, with his quirks of speech and behaviour, personifies the shortcomings of unionism.”

I love her comment that the cessation of military operations was “the IRA’s most cunning manoeuvre”. She also says “the most striking fact about the process has been the way the Sinn Féin leadership successfully sold a major climb-down as ‘victory’”.

Sinn Féin has jettisoned some dogmas that barred its way to a united Ireland. That’s the right sort of climb-down.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:22:33.
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