SAD TO SAY, BUT HOW WIDE THE GULF NOW?
Parliamentary Brief. March 1996.
'That fairly put the cat amongst the canaries' was how one West Belfast wit summed up the first of the London bombs which heralded the end of the IRA ceasefire. The comment reflected a current of thinking among many nationalists that John Major sustained the bloody nose which he had long been asking for.
But for most nationalists and republicans, whatever satisfaction they derived from David felling Goliath, it was quickly tempered by the loss of innocent life at Canary Wharf and by resignation to the likelihood of more political violence to come.
In this sense nationalists feel trapped. One one side there is the ever present threat of political violence, and on the other a British Government prepared to screw nationalists because republicans displayed a desire to no longer use political violence.
But there is little point in performing inquests into the causes of the collapse. Anyone reading my previous articles in this publication will know why the type of activity we witnessed at Canary Wharf was inevitable. It is to the future that we must now look.
All-party talks have now been arranged for June the 10th. The British are still demanding that the IRA call a ceasefire before Sinn Fein are permitted to take part. If a ceasefire were to be called then the British would create another endless series of hoops for both the IRA and Sinn Fein to jump through. There is no trust and there is little likelihood of there being any.
The lack of confidence is compounded by the visible alliance between the British government and the unionists. A Government so blatantly partisan can convince few of its credentials to act as a neutral arbiter in this dispute. And the equation has not been balanced by the behaviour of the Dublin government which - some will say to its credit - refused to adopt the same partisan approach to nationalists that the British so demonstrably showed to the unionists.
But even at that the question must be asked as to what republicans could realistically expect to achieve from all party talks if they were permitted to attend with or without an IRA ceasefire. The recent report of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation showed just how marginalised the republicans are on the question of unity by consent. It is crystal clear that a united Ireland will only come about if the unionists consent to it. It is equally clear that they will not. The dominant consensus which republicans subscribe to is that there should be an agreed Ireland. But an Ireland subject to the agreement of the unionists will not be all that different from the one we have at present.
Republicans have been insistent that there will be no 'internal' solution. But the debate will really amount to the extent to which the solution shall be 'external' rather than about the terms of imposition of a complete 'external' solution, which by definition would lead to the abolition of the state of Northern Ireland. In other words, how much of an Irish dimension will the final solution incorporate?
And realistically some form of Irish dimension is all republicans could expect to achieve from all-party talks. But this is far removed from what they have struggled for throughout the past twenty five years. Sunningdale offered such a solution and republicans said of that 'we must gut them before they gut us'. And what may have frightened unionists in 1973/1974 at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement may no longer prompt the same hysteria and paranoia.
Not surprisingly, therefore, republicans have persistently asked unionists what had they got to fear from all-party talks. So on the face of it, the British and the unionists stood little to lose from such talks given the not inconsiderable shifting of republican objectives. Yet the British government has chosen to sit like King Canute commanding the waves of political realism to halt through issuing nonsensical utterances. The tide has now gone out and it may well be quite some time before it comes back in again. The IRA statement in this week's An Phoblacht/Republican News shows just how far we are from that point. The IRA said:
There will be no decommissioning either through the front or the back doors. This is an unrealistic and unrealisable demand which simply won't be met. The IRA will under no circumstances leave nationalist areas defenceless this side of a final settlement.... Parties will participate (in all party talks) on the basis of their mandate and on that alone. Attempts to impose as preconditions the Mitchell report recommendations, attempts to impose decommissioning, attempts to impose acceptance of the so-called 'principle of majority consent' or unionist veto, attempts to impose this, that or the other principle as preconditions are a nonsense.
This is precisely the checklist of British preconditions and it serves to show the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the two sides. Robin Wilson once wrote in Fortnight magazine that no pessimist in the North of Ireland was ever proved wrong. That convention it seems, regrettably, is not about to be broken with.
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