The horrific Omagh bombing was four months away. To their eternal credit, these men realised that a resolution of sorts was possible. They realised that it might be possible to begin to build towards a new beginning for that fractured society. Their commitment in time, energy and political capital was considerable and not without risk. Without them, without their cajoling and arm-twisting — their cheque books too — an agreement would not have been reached. The progressive influence of the European Union is not now as solid as it was then. Those drivers for peace no longer exist. The international political empathy needed to engage in a minor, interminable sectarian dispute has gone.
It would strain optimism to hope US President Donald Trump could be a peacemaker. Theresa May’s premiership is dominated by the greatest rearguard action since Hitler’s armies were turned at Stalingrad and Enda Kenny’s leadership is numbered in weeks if not days. His Government possibly equally so. The EU’s future is an open question. These positive forces are otherwise engaged.
Anyone who had hoped the peace deal would herald a normalisation in Northern Ireland cannot be but deeply disheartened by the outcome of last week’s Stormont elections.
The North’s politics still seem utterly polarised, insular and driven by tribal insecurity. That Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt had to resign because his suggestion that moderate unionists might support the SDLP rather than the bellicose Democratic Unionist Party fell on deaf ears. It confirms that the middle ground is a barren place in the North and that normalisation is, like a lotto win, possible but improbable. DUP leader Arlene Foster must take considerable responsibility for this. Her goading of the crocodiles was as helpful to her opponents as any Thatcher or Paisley tirade from the dark, dark days. Sinn Féin is indeed in her debt.
The DUP finished with 28 seats, Sinn Féin 27. The snap election leaves 40 unionists and 39 nationalist/republicans, with the remainder of the 90 MLAs affiliated to neither tradition. So, like well-matched heavyweights, the DUP and Sinn Féin are in positions to inflict maximum damage on each other. What a thoroughly dispiriting prospect.
The perspective for Fianna Fáil, who have shown mercurial flexibility on matters of principle so they might not be outflanked by Sinn Féin, and Fine Gael, may be even more so. They should be concerned by the extremely effective ground campaign waged by Sinn Féin. If it were replicated south of the border it could turn Sinn Féin’s surging poll figures into something more tangible. A version of the old line — “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”— rings true again. Instability in Leinster House, the House of Commons, the EU parliament and the White House may give Sinn Féin strategists the opportunity they have longed decades for.