Friday, April 07, 2006

Another Clash of Civilisations

Less than half a century ago, Europe was tearing itself apart in a great clash of religious beliefs.

Wars lasted for more than a century, and for all that has happened since, the Thirty Years War is still the most devastating of conflicts to have affected the centre of Europe.

But there are areas where it still seems to go on.

The media in London this morning is mainly about a dead swan in Scotland having found to have had the H5N1 bird flue. And then there is Great Ascot tomorrow and the Queen's approaching 80th birthday.

But there is also reporting on the Prime Ministers of the UK and Ireland meeting yesterday in ecclisiastical capital of all Ireland Armagh in order to try to save the peace process in Northern Ireland.

There is peace in the sense that the violent IRA campaign is over, as are the also Protestant counter-campaigns. But to get a peace that means coming together in a common democratic system in Northern Ireland has not proved possible yet.

It was in 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was concluded. And between 1999 and 2002 there was power-sharing in the Stormont Northern Ireland assembly between the Sinn Fein - seen as the political arm of the IRA - and the Ulster Unionist party.

But then it all collapsed due to a murky story of an alleged IRA spy ring in the assembly. And since then it has not been possible to resurrect any sort of power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

Not everything of what's been happening is crystal clear. The alleged IRA was spring should have been run by Denis Donaldson, who was one of the key men in the Sinn Fein leadership. But everything come out in a different light when it was later disclosed that he had been a British agent inside the IRA for two decades.

Then, of course, come his brutal execution in the remote cottage in a remote place in Ireland where he was hiding earlier this week.

Against this not entirely uncomplicated background the two Prime Ministers declared that they will recalled the suspended Stormont Northern Ireland assembly in May and then attempt to elect a First and FDeputy First Minister and form a power-sharing executive.

They will give that process until November. If nothing has happened by then they'll give up and try some other route.

Tony Blair explained the difficulties of a peace process of this sort:

"The problem is that the Good Friday Agreement can provide procedures, mechanisms and laws. What it can't do is to enforce a belief in the other's good faith. It can only come through a genuine conviction."

And that genuine conviction isn't there as yet.

Tranquility has been returned to the divided cities of Ulster very much through a separation of the two communities. In Londonderry - or Derry - a "peace wall" has been erected to separate the Protestant and Catholic - Unionist and Republican - communities.

Yesterday was the 80th birthday of the firebrand presbytarian preacher Ian Paisley who is now leading the DUP party that is the largest on Northern Ireland. He should be the First Minister, sharing power with the Sinn Fein he considers just a cover for the terrorists in the IRA.

Will it happen? Yesterday he was firm:

"The DUP will in no circumstances be in the business of putting terrorists and criminals into the government of Northern Ireland."

For him, it's all a question of preventing Ulster from ever being ruled by the Catholics of the South or - by implication - the Vatican and the "anti-Christ" that he has declared the Pope to be.

The two Prime Ministers yesterday sought to put discreet pressure on Mr Paislry by hinting that the alternative they saw if the present approached failed would be to give Dublin a greater say also in Northern Ireland.

That, for Mr Paislay, is of course more or less like the Devil hemself descending into their daily lives.

The threat did not seem to change him that much. He declared that "I can't be bought, I can't be borrowed and I'm not going to bend."

It's a true clash of civilisations. In his view.

But slowly, slowly the ground is shifting in favour of a real peace.

But clashes of civilisation are not sorted out easily.