AN ANNIVERSARY GOING NOWHERE
At the end of the 1960s, the international media captured on camera the disturbing scene of a defenceless nationalist being kneed viciously in the groin as he vainly appealed to the RUC for calm and restraint. There have been actions of infinitely worse violence since. But that one image burned its way into public consciousness because it vividly depicted the innocent and unarmed protesting for justice, and being beaten down in the street by the state for doing so.
Last week, another scene was captured on camera. A nationalist, arms akimbo, clearly unarmed, clearly defenceless, clearly appealing for restraint on the part of the RUC, had his head smashed in by a baton wielding member of that force, because, he too, had the audacity to ask for justice.
For nationalists, this is one of the few permanents of the Northern Ireland political scene. And as such it remains a permanent obstacle to a permanent peace. It is an obstacle underwritten and fortified by the British state. Consequently, for nationalists, the major onus for saving the peace lies firmly with the British Government.
Up until now there has been little sign that the British Government is going to take its responsibility sufficiently seriously to prevent a return to what the Sinn Fein national chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, has described as the abyss from which we have so painfully and painstakingly clawed our way out of.
Almost one year into the IRA ceasefire, and nationalists are deeply frustrated and angry that no significant movement has been forthcoming from the British Government. That institution has, despite earlier promises of imaginative and generous responses, thwarted and frustrated the peace process. It has subscribed to a public discourse of peace but has substantively did very little to remove the underlying cause of political violence.
This has led many, from the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, to the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, to form the belief that a war mentality constitutes the hegemonic element within British state political and strategic calculations. There would seem to be little evidence to undermine the validity of such a view.
At the heart of the dispute at present is the ongoing issue of the decommmissioning of IRA weaponry. Republicans have persistently denied that the British had ever made this a precondition for involvement in all party talks prior to the IRA ceasefire. Martin McGuinness, at this year's Eater commemoration went as far as to say that had the British have made their position clear there would not have been any ceasefire by the IRA. McGuinness is supported in this contention by Reynolds.
The British for their part have recently been pointing to the period around the end of 1993 and the start of 1994, where it is clear the decommissioning of weapons was an idea that was circulating in the public discourse. Long distance megaphone dialogue between Gerry Adams and Patrick Mayhew reveals as much. However, republicans, not without a fair measure of justification, regarded such exchanges not as part of hard and firm bargaining or negotiating positions but rather as part of the public posturing and semantics which constitute much of the thrust and parry of political discourse at the public level.
Their reason for taking this approach lay in the assurances and undertakings given by the British in their secret talks with Sinn Fein for a number of years prior to the ceasefire. Republicans maintain that decommissioning as a precondition for admittance to all-party talks never figured in the exchanges. All the available evidence suggests that republicans are being honest. Furthermore, in the dialogue between the London and Dublin governments prior to the ceasefire, Reynolds is adamant that the issue never came up. He maintains that he would not have signed the Downing Street Declaration otherwise.
All of this is reinforced by the hard evidence that British Government public posturing of the time was surely that. Indeed Major's comments that it would turn his stomach to talk to republicans carried as much weight in the minds of those his officials were indeed talking to, as his government's public utterances on decommissioning.
Nor is it without significance that in his interview with David Frost shortly after the IRA cessation, Major at no time mentioned decommissioning as a precondition for Sinn Fein's involvement in all party talks.
What is clear is that in the latter half of 1994, credible press reports based on briefings from Whitehall were strongly suggesting that it was then the intention of the British Government not to facilitate all-party talks until a period of two years had elapsed. It would seem that the British state is now working to this agenda and are prompting the unionists to run with the argument that they will not remotely consider such talks until decommissioning has taken place, as cover for their own machinations.
Such a 'selfish strategic' approach to the question of peace has done little to assure nationalists that the British state is about to behave in a genuinely neutral manner and move towards facilitating any 'agreed Ireland' outside of what the unionists will agree to. And the lesson of the past twenty five years has been that British partisanship and the measures employed to enforce it have been the primary factor determining the political violence that has plagued these islands. Has Britain forgot more than it has learned? The answer to that question will determine the future peace and stability of this country.
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