It was something of a surprise to discover late last week that President Bush was to pay a two-day visit to Ireland. One would have thought that Ireland would rank pretty low on his list of priorities at the present time. Almost certainly at the behest of Tony Blair, Bush turned up in Northern Ireland on Monday afternoon to try to get the Northern Ireland peace process under way again. Of course, Bush and Blair would also discuss how the war in Iraq is going.
Predictably, the idea of the two men discussing war and peace struck many here as highly incongruous, to put it mildly. How, antiwar protesters asked, could the two leaders justify trying to kick-start the Northern Ireland peace process while at the same time holding a war summit? It didn’t seem to dawn on them that one reason the IRA decided to enter peace talks via its political proxy, Sinn Fein, was because republican leaders concluded that they would never beat the British militarily.
What the foolish and naïve never seem to properly appreciate is that very often there is only one road to peace talks with an enemy: to fight him to a standstill. This is unfortunate, but true. Your enemy will rarely enter peace talks when he thinks he can defeat you.
For those not following the Northern Ireland peace process, here’s a quick update: Last year, the leader of the main Unionist party, David Trimble, suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly because the IRA has still not “decommissioned” its weapons. This restored direct rule from London.
Since then, the British and Irish governments have been working furiously to get things back on track. In return for an unequivocal IRA statement saying it will lay aside all “paramilitary” activity, the British army presence in the North will be further scaled back, there will be further devolution of policing and judicial powers, and further measures to ensure equality and guarantee human rights will be introduced. Bush and Blair have arrived on the scene in the hope of getting all the main parties to agree to this package and so allow the Northern Assembly to reconvene again.
The Bush visit didn’t provoke quite the amount of protest that might have been expected given the level of antiwar feeling here. There are four reasons for this. First, the visit happened at such short notice. Basically antiwar/anti-American protesters had no time to prepare. Second, it was held up North, not down South, where antiwar feeling is stronger. Third, Sinn Fein knew it would be foolish to organize a big antiwar protest in the North. Would it really be in their interest to let Bush know that they hate his guts and are viciously anti-American, in any case? What signal would this send to their supporters back in the United States? Already Sinn Fein is under some pressure in the U.S. because of their anti-Americanism. How much more obvious did they want to make this?
Finally, most Unionists are pro-American and pro-war. Unionists tend to be a deeply conservative lot with a very strong attachment to flag and country (as their name indicates), and so they support the war and the U.S. In fact, a few hundred Unionists actually took part in a pro-war demonstration.
In the end, about 1,500 people joined an antiwar protest yesterday, but they got nowhere near Bush and Blair. Of the 1,500 protesters, many came from the South. It was a pretty poor show and hardly compared with the 100,000 who turned out in Dublin on February 15 to protest against the war (but strangely not against Saddam Hussein).
Overall, the visit went well for both Bush and Blair. It says something about the relationship between the two men that the president arrived in Belfast at all, and if it can indeed get the peace process back on track , the meeting will have been more than worthwhile. Of course, if the protesters had got their way, Bush would never have come to Ireland and peace in the North would be that much further way. But then, it’s not unusual for “peace protesters” to defeat their own purposes through a mixture of obtuseness and naïveté.
— David Quinn is a columnist with the Sunday Times (Ireland edition).