1990s >> 1997 >> no-1117-september-1997

The Irish scene changes

As we write, in August, Harold Wilson’s affirmation that a week is a long time in politics is particularly apposite to the political situation in Northern Ireland. The previous month most people here were anxiously scanning the daily news bulletins for some sign that would lend hope that the province’s Armageddon might not be at hand.

Everywhere the awful word “Drumcree” was spoken: cautiously, in anger and in whispers.The holy men of the Orange Order had to placate their god by marching down the “Catholic” Gervaghy Road and through other areas where their opponents would be put under police curfew so that they should not be offended when the Orangemen reminded them, with salutary intent, that they had beaten them in other places in the past.

Gervaghy Road was particularly sensitive for it was here two years ago that a flushed David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had skipped a victory jig with the arch bigot Paisley when the police had forcefully cleared a path for the Orangemen. Now the word was out: there would be no Orange feet on the Gervagghy Road. But the echo said: stop us at your peril!

Mo Mowlam, the new Labour Secretary of State was the mainstay of the popular hope of deliverance. What she lacked in ability and aplomb was compensated for by tremendous energy as she visited Residents’ Groups, Orange Lodges, politicians, clergymen and the dogs in the street with the old, failed argument that we should all be reasonable.The Catholic nationalists were especially impressed, however; British Secretaries of State didn’t usually call around for tea and a chat and the anger of the Unionists at this newly-forged friendship seemed to clinch the Catholic belief that Mo would protect them.

In the event, Mowlam, in what the Catholics not unreasonably construed as an act of gross treachery, supported the Chief Constable of the RUC in sending in hundreds of armed police, expensively equipped for dealing with the violence which they initiated. With a viciousness equalling their violence of the previous year, they cleared the road for the Orangemen to go in triumph for the worship of their god. Ironically, the Catholic god had to do with a makeshift mass on the street because Mo and the RUC refused them permission to go to their church.

While sensible people with motor cars or the price of a boat or plane ticket were making their way across the Irish border or across the Channel, the fiery battalions of stone and petrol-bomb throwers were already retaliating. Within a few days the cost, in monetary terms, of the legacy of lunacy that motivated both the Orangemen and those opposing them was around £20 million which was within an ass’s whisper of the cost of the same religious outing in ’95 and ’96.

Twenty million deducted from the shrunken educational budget or the grossly under-funded NHS was an obvious matter for concern. Last year the offensively arrogant Sir Patrick Mayhew decided that additional “security” costs should be defrayed from the health and educational budgets—on the apparent assumption that youthful petrol-bombers would stop and think about the effect of their actions on their education. The real fear, however, was what the aftermath of Drumcree would lead to.

Would the IRA up the ante? Would the loyalist paramilitaries officially return to the killing game? The newspapers said people were hoarding essential supplies: the empty streets told the general fear.

Sudden change
Suddenly the Orange Order announced that its members would avoid those areas where its marches carried the greatest threat to the peace and a week later the IRA announced a cease-fire. It would have been comforting to think that both these organisations, neither of which is renowned for putting peace and the concern for human life before the historical fictions on which each bases its absurd posturings, had suddenly moved into the twentieth century; unfortunately, their subsequent “explanations” undermined any such optimism.

Unlike the Tories, the response of the Blair government to the IRA cease-fire has been swift and positive. The last government squandered the opportunity created by the earlier cease-fire because Major’s slim majority in the House of Commons left him hostage to the power of the Unionist parties at Westminster—and the Unionists opposed the idea of all-inclusive peace negotiations. Now the Unionists have lost their veto in the Commons and the British and Irish governments have made it clear that, if the IRA cease-fire holds, not only can Sinn Fein join the peace talks when they resume in September, but that, if those talks fail to come up with an agreed settlement before May of next year, the two governments will put their own joint settlement proposals to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum.

It appears like a no-win situation for the Unionists parties. Paisley, echoed by his understudy, Robinson, had already announced the intention of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party to pull out of the talks as has, also, the insignificant UK Unionist Party. The powerful Orange Order has asked the main Ulster Unionist Party to withdraw, too, but David Trimble, perhaps with a greater understanding of grassroots opinion, has indicated that the Ulster Unionists are likely to participate— though, as a public relations exercise they will probably insist that their public exchanges with Sinn Fein take the form of “proximity” talks.


The problem for the Unionists is the intention of both the British and the Irish governments to ensure that, one way or the other, there are peace proposals to put before the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum next year. With certainty it can be said that those proposals will not involve any constitutional, change in the status of Northern Ireland though it is likely that new cross-border bodies with considerable power will be included together with internal legislation to protect the rights of the nationalist minority under some form of “partnership” local assembly. Trimble can hardly be unaware that however numerous the opponents of such proposals may be, the majority of people want to seen an end to conflict and this is especially true of the loyalist fringe parties whose armed wings previously represented a serious threat to any solution opposed by the Unionist parties.


On the other hand, Trimble may be comforted by the fact that Adams and his political playmates in Sinn Fein must be equally aware of the desire among their supporters for a lasting resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. Even more comfort might be derived from the realisation that Sinn Fein, in consenting to enter open-ended talks with the Unionist parties, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the five smaller parties (all of whom accept as a negotiating principle that Northern Ireland should remain with the UK as long as a majority within the province wish so to remain) is compromising its traditional stand which has always been that only a majority on the island of Ireland can determine the constitutional fate of Northern Ireland.


Another grave problem for Sinn Fein and one that is likely to undermine the raison d’etre of the IRA’s justification of their historic right to use physical force is the intention of the Irish government to put any settlement agreed between the parties in Northern Ireland, or of the two governments, to the people of the Republic of Ireland in a referendum to be held the same day as the proposals are put in a referendum to the people of Northern Ireland. By indulging in a bit of political aerobatics Sinn Fein and the IRA were able to claim that the last all-Ireland election, in 1918 (before the British-imposed partition of the country) endorsed the right of Sinn Fein to employ the armed force of the IRA to wage war to establish an all-Ireland Republic.


This peculiar justification theory is important to the IRA/Sinn Fein for despite the fact that the opposition of the Catholic Church to their activities has bred a strong streak of anti-clericalism within the Republican movement, they do accept that there is a “moral” distinction between killing as the heirs of the “legitimate government” of the people and what they would see, and condemn, as mere political murder. The prospect of the removal of this eighty-year excuse must surely create a telling dilemma for ardent Catholics like Adams, McGuinness and many of their cohorts.


But, then, if the peace holds. Unionist, Nationalist and Republican politicians in Northern Ireland, whether or not they engage in the impending peace talks will be faced with dilemmas. Of course the consequences are relevant in that the killing may be ended or may start again but the issues behind the conflict are completely and utterly irrelevant to the real interests of the working class.


Richard Montague