Parliamentary Brief November 1995

That the recent Sinn Fein national internal gathering in the Royal Dublin Society conference centre in Dublin was long overdue led some to feel that there would be a lot of pent up opposition to the republican leadership's peace strategy just waiting to explode. On the Thursday prior to the conference the Belfast journalist, Suzanne Breen, writing in the Irish Times, painted a somewhat gloomy picture, the title, capturing the essence of her article -'Chill wind stirs the Provisional grassroots'.

Breen interviewed a number of Republicans and most were critical of the republican leadership. But anyone hoping that the pen of this journalistic persona non grata within republican ranks may have acted as the crank of the wheel that would open the floodgates, drowning the republican leadership in a deluge of criticism, were to be disappointed by the show in the RDS.

If the leadership expected a serious challenge either to themselves or their strategy, they certainly displayed no signs of nervousness on the day. There was no attempt to stage-manage the conference, as predicted by one in the Breen article. Nor did the leadership use up valuable time filibustering on the pretext of answering the delegates' concerns. In fact the most serious criticisms voiced against the peace strategy were met with a plea from the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, for other delegates to come forward and say the same thing or worse if that was what was on their minds. By any standard the conference was precisely what it was billed as - a delegates' conference. Over sixty people from the floor spoke at the podium.

So, what was actually said and how accurate is it as a barometer of the mood within republican ranks at this point in time?

It is clear that for some time there has been growing unease among the republican rank and file. As far as one can tell there has been no major demand to resume an armed campaign forthwith. But the cumulative effect of British stalling tactics has led to the development of a particular mindset that the peace process is doomed to failure and that everything is back to square one again with all which that entails.

This is probably a more dangerous situation than that of the intense but immediate and spontaneous pressure which can develop as a result of something like the Clegg release or the sectarian brutality perpetrated by the RUC on the Ormeau Road in July. Intelligent moves by the British - of which there is no evidence of any to date - can dilute such pressures and cause them to dissipate. But with the mindset, there spreads a fatalistic cement-like resignation that no matter what occurs there is an inherent bad faith on the part of the British. And this type of thinking, characterised by a dearth of hope, can not be neutralised as easily as the more intense but momentary pressure. It is this more than the big news events that feeds into the steadily spiralling belief that the 'peace' cannot hold.

This was implicit in much of what was said at the RDS. Although, one leading member of Sinn Fein stated in unambiguous terms that the peace process was not some temporary tactic but formed the kernel of Sinn Fein's strategy and that there was no 'plan-B, there was widespread frustration expressed from early in the morning session and which failed to abate throughout the day. But significantly, the target of such anger was the British Government rather than the republican leadership. Most of the delegates felt the peace strategy was 'worth the risk', and as the An Phoblacht/Republican News reported 'anger against the British government was the topic raised by all speakers'.

The most serious criticisms came from six delegates, most of whom argued along similar lines. The gist of their contentions was that the current strategy could not bring a British withdrawal and that it was therefore fundamentally flawed. One of the six went so far as to describe it as a partitionist fudge and a capitulation to the unionist veto.

The republican leadership left the Dublin conference,its credentials still very much intact. But even they must know that, as a spokesman for the republican prisoners put it, 'so long as the process remains static, it has a limited shelf life'. For now the target of discontent is the British government. But targets too have limited shelf lives. And there is only one place the sights can fix on if and when the British drop out of range.



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