BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.06.02

Film: Film on Northern Ireland. Iain Watson reports on the crisis facing the Peace Process.

IAIN WATSON: The new Police Service of Northern Ireland is on patrol during a period of heightened tensions on the streets of Belfast, the British and Irish governments will meet all the pro agreement parties in the province this week; a recognition that the peace process is under increasing pressure from sustained incidents of sectarian violence. The most dramatic scenes have been in the small Nationalist enclave of the Short Strand in east Belfast, sandwiched between streets which are seen as Protestant paramilitary territory. Both communities blame each other for provoking the disturbances. The expected peace dividend from the Good Friday Agreement hasn't been delivered to some of the most tense and least well off parts of Northern Ireland. Some acts of violence have been on the increase since the main paramilitary groups went on cease-fire. In 1997, the year before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there were ninety three incidents involving bombs -but by last year this had increased to four hundred and forty eight. In 1997, the police in Northern Ireland recorded forty six shootings by loyalist groups, but in the first two months of this year, there were fifty: more than in the whole of 1997, although some of these were due to internal disputes. Shootings by republican groups are also on the increase; there were twenty six in the whole of 1997, but in the first two months of this year alone this had risen to twenty nine. Violence didn't exactly evaporate four years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was signed; but the recent disturbances here in the Short Strand area of Belfast is putting the peace process under even greater pressure. Not only have we seen the army back on the streets, but there are allegations of involvement by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries in recent activities. That, combined with the revelations about the extent of IRA involvement in Colombia, and the Good Friday Agreement is under unprecedented strain. And now one government minister has admitted privately that it's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that the IRA cease-fire is holding DAVID BURNSIDE MP; If the British Government is prepared to stand up to the Republican Movement which I'm afraid that so far they haven't proved that they're prepared to do, they will declare the Provisional IRA cease-fire is over and that will have consequences for the whole Belfast Agreement. MARTIN McGUINNESS; I believe the IRA cessation has been rock solid. The IRA have been, for the greater part of eight years, on cessation. DAVID ERVINE; I'm telling it as it is. UVF have broken the cease-fire. The IRA has broken the cease-fire, and instead of having a government that's saying, "Well we've got problems, we'd better do something about it", the government's almost afraid to admit that it has a problem. WATSON; This event, at Northern Ireland's parliament buildings, was to celebrate peace. The American envoy Richard Haass was presenting a prize for cross community reconciliation, which went to the brother of Belfast's Sinn Fein mayor. But he did more than glad hand; during his visit, he met all the key political players, and his assessment is that both Loyalists AND Republicans were involved in orchestrating the recent disturbances RICHARD HAASS; Obviously there's been some violence and clearly not all the violence is spontaneous, we're seeing a degree of organised violence from the Loyalist paramilitaries as well as on the Republican side. WATSON; The Nationalist lower Ormeau Road is about a five minute drive from the Short Strand, and it's also seen sporadic clashes recently. A community leader there says he believes Republicans were involved in violence in the Short Strand, but that they had every right to be. GERARD RICE; The Republicans clearly did shoot - you know - elements in the Short Strand, clearly did shoot five people. So, when people in - in Short Strand, you know, have their houses wrecked and then people attempt to burn 'em, somebody has to defend them. WATSON; The problem for the government is that, unlike those politicians who are close to the Loyalist paramilitaries, Sinn Fein sit on the Northern Ireland Executive, so declaring the IRA cease-fire over could be tantamount to declaring that the peace process is over; the Short Strand area is of strong symbolic significance to Republicans; a nascent Provisional IRA carried out one of its first ever actions in the grounds of St Matthews church thirty two years ago when three Protestants, they say were part of a marauding mob were killed. Now, after two acts of decommissioning, the IRA may be keen to prove that they haven't abandoned Catholic communities under siege, but Sinn Fein say it's just ordinary householders protecting their property McGUINNESS; Whenever homes are being blast bombed, paint bombed, petrol bombed, shot at by Loyalists, people come climbing over walls and into communities, the people come onto the streets and defend their community. No Republican involvement anywhere in the world. That would have happened anywhere in the world. People have a right to defend themselves against this aggression, now really - really what I...... WATSON: Are the IRA effectively defending their own community? McGUINNESS: Well I don't know what the IRA are doing. I - I am dealing with the root of the difficulty here, and take it from me the IRA are not the root of difficulty in Belfast. WATSON: Last week on this programme the Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel Mclaughlin refused to condemn an attack on a Catholic recruit to the new police service. That now appears not have been a spontaneous reaction, but a strategic decision by Sinn Fein. Their refusal to endorse the new police service allows them to differentiate themselves from their Nationalist political rivals, the SDLP. Would you condemn the attack on the Catholic recruit? McGUINNESS: My position is very, very, clear. I deplore all causes of conflict and all violence within our society. It's very clear. WATSON: But do you condemn that specific attack? McGUINNESS: I can't be any clearer than what I've just said. I deplore all injustice. Don't ask about one specific attack because... WATSON: Why not? McGUINNESS: I have just come from a community yesterday, that has been attacked on a daily basis, by Loyalist paramilitaries and you don't ask me, my views on that? WATSON: I did and you condemned it. McGUINNESS: No, I don't... WATSON: You condemned the Loyalist attack. But do you also condemn the attack on the Catholic recruit. McGUINNESS: I'm sorry... I'm sorry but I don't be asked specifically - no one comes to me for example from the BBC with a specific agenda to deal with a situation where Catholics are being attacked by Loyalist paramilitaries WATSON: Anti-Agreement Unionists were defeated at yesterday's meeting of the party's executive in their attempt to get David Trimble to set a date for pulling out of the government with Sinn Fein. But party officers will meet to consider action against the Republicans this Friday. If they don't take a tough enough line, some of David Trimble's opponents inside the party are threatening to call a meeting of the much larger and less leadership-friendly, Ulster Unionist Council - where they'll try to force him to resign from the government of Northern Ireland. BURNSIDE: I don't believe that Unionists will have any credibility if they continue in the Executive with Sinn Fein, the political mouthpiece of the Republican Movement which incorporates the provisional IRA that continue to be involved in terrorism and violence domestically and internationally. It must be brought to a crunch as soon as possible and I don't believe we as an Ulster Unionist party can allow it to drift through the summer, I think it must be done this month. WATSON: One small island off the coast of Britain where symbols of identity aren't contentious is the tax haven of Jersey, the venue for last week's meeting of the British/Irish council. It should have been all about the knowledge economy but it soon became the impromptu venue for the Prime Minister to get up to speed on the developments in Northern Ireland. He agreed to convene a meeting of all pro agreement parties, but the Unionist delegation was pressing for something more firm. The formal business of the British/Irish council was conducted here in this room but many of the real negotiations took place on the sidelines. Pro-Agreement Unionists have been lobbying the government intensely to punish Sinn Fein for what they see as a breach in the IRA ceasefire. They say a lack of willingness by the government to take on Republicans, simply plays into the hands of anti-Agreement Unionists and they are becoming increasingly frustrated that the government's rhetoric against paramilitary activity simply isn't backed by explicit threats of sanctions against Sinn Fein. David Trimble had drawn up a list of demands involving action against Sinn Fein, short of leaving the Northern Ireland Executive, which he presented to the Prime Minister. But his pro-Agreement colleagues say without visible support from Tony Blair, the option of walking out of government may yet become inevitable. SIR REG EMPEY MLA: There is a limit to our patience and a limit to our ability to maintain institutions while they are being continuously undermined by Republican Paramilitaries. That is the target that must be addressed and addressed by Tony Blair now. WATSON: The Conservatives, say the government, are in a position to send a strong signal to Sinn Fein immediately without having to exile them from the peace process. The government could withdraw guarantees apparently made to Sinn Fein at Weston Park in Staffordshire last July when the government was trying to encourage IRA decommissioning. QUENTIN DAVIES MP: There is a whole range of sanctions which are possible and I have set them out in the House of Commons. I personally would start with probably the easiest one which is to remove the Sinn Fein IRA special status at Westminster which should never have been given. Secondly I would suspend all the Weston Park promises to Sinn Fein IRA amnesties for on the run terrorists. And then if that didn't work I would certainly take powers to remove the Sinn Fein members of the executive. WATSON: But Sinn Fein say the current street troubles in the Short Strand are being exploited by shadowy figures in the security services who have deliberately timed their allegations of IRA weapons training in Colombia to coincide with the current tensions and to stoke up retaliation. McGUINNESS: I don't believe that the peace process in Ireland is under threat from the IRA but I think that it is under threat from people within the British military establishment, and from within Loyalism here attacking Catholics who are doing that in order to prevent change and to destabilise all of the work of the last ten years. WATSON: This isn't the West Bank. It's East Belfast -the Israeli flag is flying alongside Union Jacks in an apparent Loyalist tribute to the tough - some would say brutal action - taken against terrorism in the Middle East. Some of the politicians closest to Protestant paramilitaries such as the UVF say that ceasefires were breached partly because the government hasn't taken robust enough action to stop tit for tat sectarian violence. ERVINE: Every time there's been a violent action that hasn't been jumped on from a great height, we're sending messages to every paramilitary, of whatever colour, in Northern Ireland, that the parameters are broader, the barriers are coming down and sometimes people behave because they can, and we have to retrace our steps and offer to the ordinary people the belief that this is not a paramilitary process. WATSON: It's not just the new police service of Northern Ireland that's been stretched to the limit by street violence, it's the entire peace process. If the government fails to take tough action against Sinn Fein, that could play into the hands of anti-Agreement Unionists, but to declare the IRA ceasefire has been breached could provoke a potentially more dangerous backlash.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.