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The politics of madness

The Provisional IRA's guns have been almost silent now for some seven years. The spin doctors of republican terrorism have now got their snouts in the political trough – two of them government ministers mouthing the same sort of nostrums and excuses as their erstwhile unionist opponents. The power of Sinn Fein over their paramilitary first cousins in the IRA has been demonstrated by the fact that, despite the opportunist manoeuvrings of their political wing, their cease-fire has held largely intact.

It would have been a bold political prophet who would have predicted in 1970, when a few die-hards of the pure faith of Pearse and Connolly established the Provisional IRA – in contradistinction to the more quiescent policies of the Leninist “Official” IRA – that the new movement would achieve such lofty peaks in the small range of Northern Irish politics.

Today, the mouthpieces of the Provos have become the epitome of political respectability. People like Adams are welcome guests of the Irish government. They can speak man-to-man with Blair and they are been in the White House. Now, internationally recognised political celebrities, they can be heard arguing the case for what they contend is the road to a permanent peace.

Slaughter of the innocents
Of course, there was a price to pay. Thousands of people have died, most killed by the Provos. The lives of many young men and women have been marred by years of imprisonment. Still others have been tortured and murdered on the authority of kangaroo courts. Additionally, the quite fearsome atmosphere of hatred and division that stalks Northern Ireland at present is in no small way the product of the IRA's violence – the alleged purpose of which was to establish unity between the people of Ireland irrespective of religion.

In the recent elections that division was emphasised: Most of the Catholics who voted did so for Sinn Fein, allowing the republicans to claim that they were now the larger of the two nationalist parties. Sinn Fein celebrated with an orgy of flag-waving triumphalism remarkably reminiscent of the behaviour of their traditional enemies. Adams and his political cohorts are astute enough to know that a resumption of IRA violence would dramatically reduce their electoral fortunes and scupper their strategy for becoming an effective all-Ireland political force. There was another vital point that might have made some thoughtful republicans see their electoral victories as somewhat Pyrrhic. What they had done to the moderate nationalists of the SDLP, the virulent forces of Paisley's miscalled “Democratic” Unionist Party had done to the more accommodating representatives of Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party.

The leader of the traditional Unionist Party, David Trimble, is an Orangeman with a past. In the early seventies he was associated with the neo-fascist Vanguard Unionist Party. A few years ago he danced a victory jig with Paisley on the Garvaghy Road while the police forcefully cleared a path for the Orangemen to march. But Trimble is a lawyer with strong political aspirations and, as the leadership of Sinn Fein were becoming aware that there was no real future in violence, Trimble was coming to the view that there was political kudos in the politics of accommodation.

 

John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein were already working on the detail of that accommodation. At the same time, while declaring in the House of Commons that talks with republicans would upset his digestive system, John Major's emissaries were in secret talks with the Provos – without Adams advising Hume or the British telling their “peace partners” in the Irish government.

Eventually, the various strands of a possible agreement was arrived at and presented jointly by the British and Irish governments as a framework for peace. Weeks of frenetic discussions ensued in which the real social problems of the majority of the people were never mentioned. The discussions were about flags, about the religion of the members of the police force that enforces capitalism's laws, and about reflecting the close co-operation at governmental level already existing between capitalist enterprises north and south of the border.

There was much talk by the republican side about “equality of esteem” but it was pure political vapour, the same absolute rubbish that Sinn Fein's military wing thought justified the slaughter of the innocent for nearly thirty years. It was wholly unrelated to the lives of working class people irrespective of religion or whether they lived north or south of the Irish border. Inequality is a vital part of the mechanics of capitalism; Sinn Fein's perception of equality of esteem simply means that they want workers who are Catholics or nationalists to share equally in the inequalities of capitalism as it exists in Ireland.

Hotchpotch of ambiguities
The so-called Good Friday Agreement was a hotchpotch of ambiguities written in convoluted language calculated to deliberately obfuscate disagreements and placate the more threatening opponents of compromise. Worse, it was a sectarian charter, institutionalising the very bigotries that has traditionally helped to feed conflict and division in the province. Both sides would give a little and take a little and life would go on with the majority of the population still enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous capitalism. There were to be rewarding political positions for yesterday's hard men and women with all the trappings of low-grade power and a generous modicum of economic affluence. For some, the struggle was paying off.

But there were those who felt aggrieved either because they had been left out, or wanted more or were so poisoned with hatred of their opponents that they disdained the idea of any compromise even if it contained the possibility of ending the killing. Paisley, the bellowing fundamentalist firebrand, and his “Democratic” Unionist Party were outraged. Theirs is a peculiar conception of democracy in which the majority, always providing it is a Protestant majority, has the right of absolute political domination over the those who are not Protestant and Unionist. The calibre of the DUP can be gauged by their silence when, during the recent election campaign, Paisley put his sanction on line dancing, making us aware that God didn't like it and that it was the road to eternal damnation.

Still, the DUP went to the Assembly, sat in the Chamber with members of Sinn Fein, took the generous salaries, in some cases substantially incremented by local Ministerial salaries and in others by the generous salaries of Westminster MP's. Being a party of principle, however, they refused to sit at the cabinet table with Sinn Feiners but did sit with them on Assembly committees and, of course, in many local government chambers.

Paisley, as always, was demanding the political head of anybody who would countenance the remotest idea of co-operation with republicans. Together with the Orange Order and the majority of Trimble's own Westminster MP's, they were frantically engaged in promoting the idea that Protestants were being increasingly denied their traditional “rights”. The “rights” referred to are mainly areas of largely cosmetic privilege or blatantly sectarian discrimination designed to kid working class Protestants that they were a privileged section of the community. The main stumbling block, however, was the failure of the IRA to decommission its weapons.

The weapons issue was, and is, a vital ploy in the power struggle between the Paisley Unionist and the Trimble unionists for the hearts and minds of the Protestant community. IRA guns are, in the main, silent; some of their arms dumps have been inspected and sealed by the body of international commissioners established to oversee paramilitary arms decommissioning and there can be little doubt that most of the rest of their arsenal in the Republic has been compromised.

On the threshold of the last election, in the hope that his action would forestall advances by the Paisleyites, Trimble announced that if the IRA did not show some evidence of actual decommissioning by the end of June he would resign his position as First Minister of the Assembly. Obviously Trimble was not really concerned at the trickle of arms the IRA might have conceded in order to allow him to retain his post. The gesture was intended to save him from his erstwhile supporters and, since he is the most accommodating Unionist leader, it might have seemed reasonable for the IRA to throw him a political lifeline in the shape of a few kilograms of Semtex or some ageing guns.

But just as Trimble is the prisoner of his backwoods supporters, so are Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership hostage to those wilder elements in the IRA who see any act of decommissioning as an act of surrender. Trimble must know that the IRA guns are a threat now only insofar as they might get into the hands of the political nutters of the Real IRA who want to continue killing and dying “for Ireland'”. He must be aware that Sinn Fein's ambition is to win sufficient seats in the Republic's Dail to enable the Party to become a participant in a future coalition government in the Republic. Ensconced thus, in government in the South and remaining a major player in the North, would extend Sinn Fein's influence and power to a point previously undreamed of.

If the Northern Ireland Assembly is killed by the decommissioning issue, it will be a major impediment to the plans of the Sinn Fein leadership and a death knell to the political ambitions of the Trimble Unionists. Ironically, both parties need each other in the further pursuit of their disparate objectives. It is a need that underwrites the madness of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland.

Paisley has won a resounding victory, another one! The difficulty with Paisley's victories is that each one seems to reverse the fortunes of his cause. It is more than thirty years since he and his bigoted cohorts started the battle to “save Ulster”. Over the years his party has gathered strength and now boasts that it is the true representative of the Unionist. But as the party progressed, the cause regressed because it is a throwback both in religious and political terms to the grosser lunacies of the sixteenth century.

RICHARD MONTAGUE