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12 July 1999

Don’t trust the IRA: it’s a cod

David Trimble feels like a victim of Nazi aggression in the 1930s: if he doesn't give in, the tanks

By John Lloyd

Watching the line of bowler-hatted, orange-sashed septuagenarians at the front of the Drumcree parade march stiffly down the narrow lane to the razor wire, receive the expected refusal from the Royal Ulster Constabulary that they proceed along their chosen route, then turn back was to feel a real despair. You knew how this would look “back home” – that is, back on the mainland. They would look, or be made to look, ridiculous.

In her passionate portrait of Orangemen (The Faithful Tribe, HarperCollins, 1999), the Irish writer Ruth Dudley Edwards remarks: “I have never known a community so misrepresented and traduced.”

But wait a moment – are we not talking here of a bunch of bigots whose reason for existence is to exclude Catholics from political power? Yes, there are still such men among them; but to equate their oddness (to us) of dress and ritual with unchanging prejudice is false – and brings to bear a judgement that we apply nowhere else. Northern Irish society has changed enormously in the past 30 years of troubles; and the Orange Order with it. Through a campaign of republican terror in which the state has been continuously assaulted, the anti-Catholicism of the Protestant/unionist community has nevertheless to a large extent been drained away, to produce a political class that is perfectly ready to share power with Catholics, but insists that the integrity of the state be respected. It is this – the battle for who controls the state – which has always been the root cause of the bigotry and the terror. It has not melted away, and could not be melted even by the sheer force of new Labour energy. In the Northern Ireland peace process, this irreducible element has come up again and defied Tony Blair at his most engaged.

It had seemed that Blair had understood Northern Ireland. Belfast was his first out-of-London visit after assuming power in May 1997; he told an audience that he did not expect to see a united Ireland in the lifetime of even the youngest in the hall, if ever – but that it was imperative to find ways of sharing power within a province securely British. He convinced David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, that he could be trusted. Trimble, who had come from the right of his party, was prepared to lead it from the left, and did so. He brought it into the Good Friday Agreement, welcomed Seamus Mallon of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as his first deputy when he became First Minister and began to reach out to Catholic communities, churches and even, in the past few weeks, to the republican-led residents’ associations.

What Blair seemed to understand was not just that unionists constitute the majority in the province and that the majority must be respected; this is not, and never was, the core case for the Union’s preservation. It is, and was, that the province’s status as a part of the UK was agreed between the British and Irish governments and that agreement has been the legal basis of the division of the island of Ireland ever since. The Irish government later muddied the waters by proclaiming ownership of the North in its constitution; but it has been one of the great achievements of the Good Friday Agreement – and of the present Irish government – that these clauses were excised and a simple aspiration inserted in their place.

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The central importance of the observation of borders as a factor of stability is well understood in the government. In my interview with Robin Cook on Kosovo (see NS, 5 July) the Foreign Secretary stressed the sanctity of borders, even when they are (as borders usually are) arbitrarily drawn. Borders, he said, must always be observed; and once all believe they will be securely observed, then their importance as barriers diminishes and cross-border co-operation can begin.

In his actions last week, Blair seemed to have forgotten this. If so, he is endangering a peace process to which he had contributed so much. In the end, his duty as British Prime Minister is to insist that Northern Ireland remains British while it is the will of its people. If he does not, he will sacrifice democratic principle to expediency.

Blair is now attempting to persuade the Ulster Unionists – the only unionist party of size prepared to operate the Agreement – to work in a cabinet with Sinn Fein ministers while the IRA, to which Sinn Fein is integrally linked, keeps its weapons. The basis of Blair’s trust in the decommissioning of these weapons is the “seismic shift” within the IRA – a shift to an acceptance that the guns must be handed in and politics proceed without their aid.

The evidence for this “shift” is that the Irish government has received information, or believes it has received information, that Gerry Adams wants decommissioning, and will push for it. Since he is the dominant figure in republicanism, his conversion from terrorism to democratic politics is expected to carry weight. That appears to be it. No word on Martin McGuinness, the chief negotiator, always said to be harder in his views. No view on whether or not the conversion is deep and lasting – or contingent on getting what Sinn Fein wants. Above all, no word from the executive suite; the IRA Army Council, some of whose members were on hand during last week’s talks at Hillsborough, is keeping its powder, its Armalites, its rocket-launchers, its Semtex and everything else dry.

Trimble probably believes that the Irish government believes Adams; he may even do so himself. But he cannot believe the IRA. And he can see that Adams has given himself a large safety-net; if, after pleading with the IRA Army Council to disarm, they do not, then he can say he tried, and continue to demand his rights – inclusion in a Northern Irish government.

Two pieces of evidence, one public and one made public, show just how difficult it is for Trimble to believe Adams. Jon Snow, anchorman of Channel 4 News, greeted the declaration of Sinn Fein that it would try to have weapons decommissioned as a matter of historic importance; but his interviewee firmly pierced his bubble: “No,” said Pat Doherty, the Sinn Fein vice-president, “that’s not what’s being said. What is being said that in the context of setting up the institutions, all of them, that we will continue to use our influence with all of the other participants.”

The old trade union adage – what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable – could not have been paraphrased better. Later, to the Dublin Sunday Independent, Doherty said: “This does not mean decommissioning will start. It’s all a cod [my italics]. It’s not about decommissioning.”

What? It’s all a cod? Can that be so? Yes, says the other piece of evidence – the leaking, to the Irish correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, of an internal memorandum of a meeting of the Newry Sinn Fein branch, at which it was reported that the leadership “will not give any commitments on decommissioning”. One of the major strategic objectives, said the document, was to “create disunity and confusion among their political enemies”.

It is on this basis that the Unionists are being cajoled by the government to take the leap. They cannot do so. Blair is trying to impress on Trimble that there is no other option; that otherwise the political establishment will close in on him and he and his party will be blamed for ever. Paul Bew, the mild-mannered and clever scholar who advises Trimble, has said that he is reminded of Europe in the 1930s, when Hitler delivered ultimatums with the implied threat that, should his demands not be met, the tanks would follow. It was a hell of a simile to make, but Bew was speaking from the frustration and anger those around Trimble feel.

Trimble – and Blair – have an alternative. It is to get back to democratic principles. It is to make sure that the British government underpins the rights of those who are part of the UK. If the Good Friday Agreement breaks down – and it is, as we have seen, not really an agreement but a process – then Blair must be prepared to support, not blame, the Unionists; and to point the finger at those who have refused to give up the armed struggle and refused to break from the terrorists. He must be prepared to govern the province through direct rule until republicans realise that a peace process is not another means of achieving their maximalist aims, but a new game, a game with rules they do not make up, in which persuasion and resignation to defeat are the key determinants of political power. That this should still have to be taught is a measure of how far there is to go: to attempt to stride across the chasm, as Blair seems intent on doing, is to risk all for mere wind.

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