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20 August 2001

Ulster enters the endgame

Sinn Fein has played its cards with such skill that the British are now locked into a process that w

By John Lloyd

The British government is edging, or being edged, towards negotiating the terms under which Ireland, north and south, will be united. Sinn Fein/IRA is, with great skill, gathering concessions from the British while withholding the one thing that would ensure the continuation of the provincial administration: a start to the decommissioning of IRA weapons. Its most recent offer to put “weapons beyond use”, made three years after the first commitment to begin decommissioning, was devoid of a precise timetable. Nevertheless, it achieved further changes to the Northern Ireland police bill and further commitments to withdraw troops from the border area where terrorist activity has been most intense. Then, on 14 August, it withdrew its offer because the provincial government had been suspended for one day.

But, however much it is outmanoeuvred by Sinn Fein, it becomes clearer by the day that the UK government now believes it has nowhere else to go but further down the same road. The strategy of proceeding by consensus among the parties to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is now so embedded that, in practice, it is all but impossible to change. In practice, that allows Sinn Fein, and the IRA, to dictate the pace of progress towards unity. We are at last entering the endgame in Northern Ireland.

That was the title of a recent series of four programmes made for the BBC by Norma Percy. The programmes reminded us that one of the initiators of a process that has taken place largely under Conservative governments was Margaret Thatcher, who was cajoled by officials and the Irish government into establishing, through the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, a framework within which the constitutional (non-violent) parties would meet to thrash out their differences. It got nowhere, although it raised the possibility (which Thatcher vehemently opposed) of joint authority by the British and Irish governments – and, on the Irish side, the recognition that unity could not be achieved without majority consent in the north.

This started other movements. Chief among them were the beginnings of a dialogue between John Hume, the SDLP leader, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. This, too, at first led nowhere: in particular, the Sinn Fein side was indignantly incredulous at Hume’s belief that the British were now “neutral” as to whether Ulster should remain British or become Irish. It was at Hume’s prompting that Peter Brooke, the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, announced – in a phrase of immense resonance over the next decade – that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in remaining in Northern Ireland. Britain was there, in other words, not as an imperialist force, but as a custodian of democracy.

But the real watershed was Thatcher’s departure from office. During her premiership, the line had been drawn against Sinn Fein taking a part in politics, and against the involvement of the Republic in the north’s affairs. Once John Major took over, he held to no such stance. Thus when, early in his premiership, he received a letter from Adams asking for contact, he did not brush him off.

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This continued – even though, in a mortar attack on Downing Street, the IRA tried to kill Major, as they had tried to kill Thatcher in Brighton in 1984. And contacts between the secret services and Sinn Fein produced two extraordinary admissions. On the Sinn Fein side, the phrase “the war is over” was used by Martin McGuinness, a former Derry IRA commander and now the party’s chief negotiator. On the MI5 side, “Fred” (the codename for the agent conducting the talks) said that the UK government wanted “disengagement”, that it was prepared for “some sort of [Irish] unity” and that it thought that “Ireland should be at one”. The context was one in which all such statements were deniable – and they are still denied to this day.

But the British believed that Sinn Fein/IRA was sincere, that the war was indeed over. It was this that gave the Major cabinet the confidence to pursue the peace process. Where Thatcher envisaged an agreement between the democratic parties as a prelude to peace, Major saw peace as a prelude to an agreement.

Then came the election of new Labour and the emergence of David Trimble as the leader of the Ulster Unionists. Blair felt “the hand of history on his shoulder”, and put that shoulder to the Ulster wheel even more vigorously than did the Tory leader; but the policy was essentially the same. Trimble – though he came in with the reputation of a hardliner – was far more open to new thinking than his predecessor, James Molyneaux.

The way was open to the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement – a momentum that bombs could delay, but not stop. Sinn Fein, at first barred from the talks, was let in, with the British government demanding that the IRA disarm, or “decommission”, its weapons.

Decommissioning had been raised in speeches since 1990. It had been put directly to Sinn Fein when it started formal meetings with Northern Irish civil servants in December 1994. Unable to get even token decommissioning before the talks began, the government agreed to the formulation set out by Senator George Mitchell (whom President Bill Clinton, by now deeply involved in the peace process, loaned to the British as chairman of the negotiations), which envisaged “parallel decommissioning” as the talks went on. When, in April 1998, nothing of the sort had happened in parallel and the issue threatened to hold up the agreement, Blair wrote a note to Trimble saying that he viewed decommissioning as a necessary part of the agreement, that it must happen before Sinn Fein entered government and that, if it did not, he would change the terms of the agreement. In talks in 1999, the IRA let it be known that it “accepted the decommissioning obligation in the context of a process”.

In January 2000, the unionists refused to serve with Sinn Fein on the Northern Ireland executive because no decommissioning had taken place. The IRA said then that it would “put weapons beyond use when the causes of conflict are removed”. Last month, the IRA said it would allow the concreting over of some of its weapons – once again, however, in the context of the “process”. In the course of seven lean years of negotiations on decommissioning, no weapons have been decommissioned by what is easily the most formidable of the paramilitary groups, from which all the others take their cue. It is true that bombing, except by the Real IRA, has largely ceased. But the paramilitary domination of many working-class areas, and the violence that goes with it, has increased, as has the intercommunal violence – especially, in recent months, the violence perpetrated by loyalists against republicans, or loyalists against rival loyalists.

Decommissioning has been fudged, ruthlessly and deliberately, in order to keep the agreement in existence. That has given Sinn Fein a huge advantage. Its adroit tactic of holding out the promise of decommissioning at various 11th hours allows it to win increasing numbers of concessions – most recently, on the future of the police service and on the withdrawal of army bases in South Armagh, an area from which Protestants have, in effect, been ethnically cleansed over the past decade.

Beyond all this lies the demographic question. The gap between the two communities, which stood at 65:35 in the Protestants’ favour in the 1960s, has been closing; now both sides anxiously await the results of the 2001 census, which may show only a 55:45 advantage for the Protestants, perhaps less. Moreover, there is evidence that more Protestants than Catholics are leaving the province to live and work in Britain or abroad.

Demography has always been seen, by Sinn Fein and its supporters, as the clinching element: a calculation that Clinton bolstered when, encouraging Adams to make stronger commitments on decommissioning three years ago, he said: “Don’t worry, Gerry, your numbers are getting better all the time!”

The companion to demography is political pressure. Hume’s party, the SDLP, is committed to change by peaceful means, and claims the credit for converting Sinn Fein to the same view. But it, no less than Sinn Fein, steadily pursues the goal of Irish unity. Hume’s speeches and writings are cleverly ambiguous, but clear in their direction: in his book Personal Views, he uses phrases such as “Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters will come together on our small island”; “shared sovereignty and interdependence are . . . of supreme importance”; and “an ever-closer union (in the European Union) applies to both parts of Ireland”. But sovereignty is to be shared only over part of the UK: there is no question of British sovereignty over any corner of Ireland, no matter how interdependent the world has become. Therefore, government in the province can never be settled: unionists are always the object of a ratchet – whether one driven by violence or its threat, by demographic change, or by political pressure.

This is the real story behind the decommissioning failure. Sinn Fein has no incentive to deliver because it believes, with reason, that history is on its side. And the British government finds itself in an alarming position. Its lack of “selfish strategic” interests and its frequently stated neutrality are now in danger of being turned, almost unnoticed, into a position it said it would never take – that of being a “persuader” to the unionists to enter into a real endgame of talks on Irish unity. Bit by bit, that has become the logic of its position, and all the more so if, later this year, the demographic gap is shown to be closing further.

A breakdown of the agreement and a return to war are horrible alternatives that any government would make many compromises to avoid. But to end up adopting a strategy dictated by the IRA would ultimately be worse, in terms of the blood likely to be shed. Perhaps, as Hume has often hinted, some new form of state, neither British nor Irish, could emerge and gain acceptance. The pro-nationalist political scientist Brendan O’Leary, professor of politics at the London School of Economics, suggested such a state, where the British and Irish flags, or a new flag altogether, would replace the monopoly of the Union Jack.

No preparation has been made for this or any other such change. But neutrality, the posture for the past decade, is no longer enough.

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