THE REPUBLICANS' PEACEFUL GAMBLE
The St Patrick's Day visit to the United States by Gerry Adams constituted a hefty figurative whack of the Irish shillelagh across the knuckles of the British Government, with John Major rapidly becoming John Minor in the process. Not without reason, many observers are perplexed as to why Britain poked its hand out so invitingly in the first place. As Adams indicated, speaking on Westminster on Line, how many people would have known he was in the United States were it not for the antics of the British Government and media?
Seemingly, some things have not changed all that much since the early years of last century when the eminent English clergy man, Sidney Smith, said 'The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots'.
Smith's logic equally carries as much currency when it is applied to the issue of the decommissioning of arms, the latest nonsensical hook the British seem intent on hanging themselves on. Few people seriously believe that the possession of arms in a society like the North of Ireland equates with a willingness not to use them. The latter is of infinitely more importance.
Furthermore, it is not unreasonable that Sinn Fein should stress the need to discuss demilitarization rather than the more narrow area of decommissioning at any talks between the party and the British Government. Northern Irish society is a militarized society, a glass house of political violence in which everybody throws stones. It needs ultimately to be demilitarized rather than one side or the other having its arms decommissioned. People are trying to escape from an armed society rather than any particular armed group.
In the midst of all this many are wondering what are republicans thinking? Mystifying as it might seem to a political cynic like myself as to where exactly the peace process is taking republicans, a number of whom I have spoken to in the past few weeks seem in no doubt that they will succeed in eroding the will of the British to remain in the North.
Republicans in social situations, where the party line has no premium, can be quite revealing. Over a cup of coffee in West Belfast, a prominent member of Sinn Fein explained to me that in his view the British were already in the process of uniting the country institutionally. I put it to him that republicans were getting nothing from the Framework document that was not on offer at Sunningdale. Surprisingly forthcoming, he stated that republicans were too flushed with their military prowess to give Sunningdale full analytical appreciation. In response to a further question that he may be suggesting that republicans should have accepted Sunningdale, he expressed a willingness to consider the era once again.
Sceptical as I was, I knew, however, he was not merely trying to revise history just to give new meaning and credibility to the present. If republicans indeed should have accepted Sunningdale then the present strategy, from their point of view, makes a lot of sense. But if they should have accepted Sunningdale - or at least have refrained from rejecting it in such bullish fashion - the question will undoubtedly be raised, were the following twenty two years all for nothing - just to take us back to the start almost?
This would be an inaccurate reading of developments. Had republicans accepted Sunningdale the unionists would still have pulled it down and the situation would have returned to a Stormont type system. In the immediate wake of the collapse of the power sharing executive in 1974, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, attempted precisely this in reverting back to type and attemping to get a constitutional convention up and running.
Whatever may be said of the present republican leadership by friend or foe, they at least have pulled things back round to what they were in 1973/74. And this time many republicans seem confident that there is going to be no unionist strike capable of reversing the 'tide of history', and that the unionists are going to come to terms with the thing. Indeed, John Taylor's recent Dublin speech suggests as much.
It was in this context that the views of another republican were conveyed to me over a pint in the north of the city. This time I was told my rather bleak prognosis for the republican future was wrong. The unionists were being sold out and knew it. More to the point there was an acceptance on the part of the latter that there was little they could do about it. He said if it took longer for all this to come about and as a consequence no one died in any camp, then it would be worth it. He knew what he was talking about, having lost loved ones, killed by South African weapons permitted into the country by British military intelligence.
A third republican, from Derry this time, complemented the views of his colleagues in telling me that the British if nothing else were piece by piece taking the bricks out of the unionist wall.
On reflection, it is evident that a common theme threaded its way through the thinking of all three men, namely, that while the British Government have for now refrained from acting as persuaders for a united Ireland they are unmistakably acting as dissuaders of the unionists from staying in the UK. And for republicans that is a step towards their own position, a step that, once taken, will close the gap between what the British Government is doing now and that of being persuaders for Irish unity.
It may well be a gamble on the part of republicans. But at least it is a peaceful gamble. Is the British Government going to change the money on the table by refusing even to discuss its cards not to mention showing them?
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