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19 July 1999

Ulster floats above the treetops

Tony Blair, after uprooting his own party, is trying to persuade Northern Ireland's leaders to aband

By John Lloyd

Tony Blair deals best with rootless cosmopolitans; he is the politician for this new and rapidly growing class. He has achieved his success by cutting hard against the party he has never loved and has pulled up by the roots much of what it once stood for. His “mistake” before the entrepreneurs, when he invited them to admire the scars he bore from his battles with the public sector, showed again that, though he is certainly not a social democrat, nor is he a real liberal or conservative. He is a what-works-ist, a less politically brilliant, more morally rooted Clinton.

This provides a vital clue to his role in Northern Ireland. Whatever the final outcome – and as we go to press, everything, once more, remains in the balance – he has done remarkably well to have got so far. And that is largely because the most important of Northern Ireland’s leaders have been prepared, like him, to cut hard against the obvious interests, or natural tendencies, of their constituencies, to uproot them from their familiar ground. They thus meet Blair as men he understands: fellow adventurers in a cosmopolitan space.

David Trimble is presently the most obviously un-anchored of Ulster’s party chiefs; at times, indeed, it seems as though he has abandoned much of the party he joined only after the briefly flaring Vanguard movement of William Craig in the early seventies. But John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, was the first to put himself above the movement he leads and has been the largest betrayer of his own party. He has nurtured Sinn Fein to the extent that it now challenges the SDLP everywhere in the North and is becoming a larger and larger challenge to Fianna Fail, his closest ally in the South. Gerry Adams, its president, has acquired the sheen of international statesmanship and of being the confidant of the US president.

In so doing, however, Adams has put strains on militant republicanism – strains he can contain only by continuing to aggravate the unionists at every level of Ulster politics, from the negotiations in Castle Buildings to the dour refusal of the Sinn Fein-controlled residents’ groups to countenance any Orange Order presence near ground occupied by nationalist communities. Where Hume can be relatively frank about his strategy, Adams must be the reverse, to the point where no one, perhaps not even himself, knows whether or not the conversion from militant armed republicanism to militant unarmed republicanism has been made at all. Adams wants to keep his options fully open for as long as possible because he cannot know if he has yet reached the ground where he can afford finally to ditch the implicit threat of a return to terror. Even if he is fully seized of the view that republicanism can now enter into “legitimate” politics, it is probably in his interests to delay an announcement so that he can take as much of his organisation with him as possible and minimise what is probably an inevitable split with those who are unlikely ever to share his view. His actions admit a benign interpretation: that he is stoically working his organisation round to an embrace of peace. Or they admit a malign interpretation: that he is a magnificently skilful liar in the century-old cause of republican terror. That both should be plausible suits him well.

In Bertie Ahern, Blair found an ideal Irish counterpart. He leads the more nationalist of the main Irish parties, heir to the de Valera, rather than the Collins, tradition. He could assume that the rest of Ireland would agree to any deal he made with the Brits; and so it turned out, as the proposal to excise the clauses in the constitution that laid claim to the North was passed by Soviet-size majorities. He challenged the sacred texts of Irish nationalism for the sake of peace in the North; his gamble was that the electorate cared more about the latter than the former, and it paid off.

Yet Blair himself has remained true to the British policy on Northern Ireland that he inherited. Since the 1980s, that has been to proclaim openly that Britain has no special interest in retaining Ulster as part of the UK – in contrast with Scotland, whose union with England is the constitutional root of the British state and whose separation would damage England diplomatically as much as it would Scotland economically and culturally. I remember my sense of shock in Belfast in 1987 when I heard Tom King, then the (Conservative) Ulster secretary, say, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, that Britain had no strategic interest in Northern Ireland. It was in a narrow, military sense true – but it was also an implicit separation of the province from the state.

Blair has taken that tentative remark into the core of his policy. Northern Ireland will remain British only because the majority wishes it; the British government has no view on whether it wishes it or not. There is thus no invoking of common achievements or memories; no state encouragement of or presence at the “loyal” manifestations; no recognition that the bar on Northern Irish citizens joining the Labour Party is a civil injustice.

But Blair has added something, too. He has elevated a new principle of rootlessness as the solution to the accursed Ulster question. The province can – indeed should – exist in a political lightness of being. Its state has no opinion on its allegiance. Its parties, who must share government according to their electoral strength, need have no long-term loyalty to the state. As things presently stand, two of them – the SDLP and Sinn Fein – will have ministers in a British regional cabinet, while agitating for an end to British rule in their spare time (and probably in government time as well). In a province tangled up in its roots for so long, he has proposed a government floating above the treetops.

Only one who had uprooted his own party could truly believe in such a construction; it is perhaps the first postmodern assembly in the world.

But it has not left the modern behind it yet. Irish nationalism may be purging itself of terror – many, including Blair, think that is the long-term, irreversible trend – but it is not discarding its aims. There remains a steady belief among nationalists in the inevitability of the eventual union of the island. The excision of the irredentist articles in the Irish constitution is best seen, from the nationalist viewpoint, as a brief retreat in preparation for a long advance.

Demographics are probably still on their side (if the calculation remains good that Catholics are born nationalists), while the enrichment of the Republic, its eager Europeanism and the rapidly decreasing power and prestige of its church have made it less repellent to all but the most fundamentalist Protestants.

The republican calculation was always that only the gun could force the “British” (the Protestants) out. Lenin took the same view of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. But no one in a developed country is Leninist now. The IRA may be the last to realise that, but Blair is probably right in believing that the IRA realises that now. For those who truly want to preserve the union, peace is probably a greater threat than war.

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