Completing Unfinished Business? the Irish Peace Talks Have Been Rocked by the Killing of Billy Wright. but the Government Is Gambling That a Violent Tradition Is Finally Playing Itself Out

Article excerpt

There is a revealing passage in the diaries of Sean Duignan, government press secretary to the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds. In the two months leading up to its cease fire of 31 August 1994, the IRA shot dead three prominent members of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA). For Duignan this seemed at odds with official optimism about republican intentions. However, he received a knowing assurance: "'Unfinished business,' I was told."

The murder of Billy Wright inside the Maze Prison by members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) would also appear to fall into that category of "unfinished business", a final reckoning with someone who refused to be put out of the business of paramilitarism. The only problem with a category like "unfinished business", of course, is its elasticity: what for one side is celebrated as a single act of justified retribution is for the other an act of intolerable provocation. The murder of a former republican prisoner and the wounding of three others in a retaliatory act by Wright's Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) repeated a familiar pattern. The security fear, intimated in the responses of the British and Irish governments, is that settling old scores might break the current ceasefires to which neither the LVF nor the INLA are party.

That fear appears ill-founded. The murder of Wright will probably be limited in its impact for a number of reasons, two of which are worthy of mention. There has, of course, been real concern about prisoners' issues in loyalist politics. The Popular Unionist Party, which speaks on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), some of the former members of which now constitute the LVF, has threatened not to return to the talks on 12 January. The Ulster Democratic Party, close to the UDA, has also expressed discontent with prison policy. This has nothing to do with conditions inside the prisons (the issue on which the unionist parties believe the Secretary of State should resign). It has to do with perceived inequities over the release of loyalist and republican prisoners. In other words, discontent within loyalism pre-dates Wright's murder and is unconnected to it. The likelihood is that the Northern Ireland Office is prepared to finesse sufficient "confidence-building" measures with regard to prisoners to satisfy both loyalist parties. The irony is that the INLA, an opponent of the peace process on the republican side, has removed the one person capable of subverting fidelity to that process on the loyalist side (a person threatened with death by the UVF for that very reason in 1996).

Second, because both the LVF and the INLA are small and geographically confined - the LVF concentrated mainly in mid-Ulster and the INLA in North and West Belfast - the security forces should be capable of keeping their known members under constant surveillance, thereby limiting the scope for further violent action. There seems little possibility of the IRA or the UVF and the UDA becoming involved in a general resumption of hostilities. Moreover, there is no evidence that this is part of an IRA plot to seek an "exit strategy" from the talks, as David Trimble has suggested (though it may have revealed a possible exit mechanism for the IRA). Nor is it fair for John Hume to accuse some Ulster unionists of using the latest killings as an excuse to derail the talks. If they had wanted to do that then the decommissioning of IRA weapons was a more appropriate issue. …