The all-party talks reached their conclusion and were hailed by the British, Irish and American governments as a "historic breakthrough". Among Irish Republicans and their supporters, however, there is some confusion about what exactly is on offer. There has been speculation about arms decommissioning, disbanding the RUC and the possible early release of prisoners, with `conditions' of course. It is important, however, to read between the lines and see that there is a bigger political picture to be drawn which puts the media hype about the `agreement' in the proper context.
It is right to be sceptical about the sincerity of the Brits and the Free Staters, but it is also right to be confident of the abilities of those who have led the Republican struggle for the past three decades. It is also important to recognise that the people who forced the Brits into negotiations with Sinn Fein were the Volunteer soldiers of the IRA. The British Establishment was bombed to the negotiating table. And when they made concessions to unionism which ended the first cease-fire, they were bombed back to the negotiating table. That in essence was the logical conclusion of the armed struggle. The Republican Movement wanted their enemies (Britain) to recognise their political representatives; acknowledge their right to argue for self determination; and recognise their right to negotiate a political settlement. There is a question that can be put quite seriously- to those various elements, from, the conservative British Left… (who never supported the IRA when the war was on, and who have now suddenly become `cease-fire soldiers'!)… to those quasi-religious republican fundamentalists, who are falling over each other to shout "Sell out!". The question is, `What is your alternative?'
The status quo? If that is what they are arguing for, and I've heard nothing from them to convince me otherwise, it puts them in the camp of the most reactionary elements in British and Irish society. That's what Paisley is arguing for and that is what right wing conservatives and fascists have been arguing for. It is also, interestingly enough, the position of the `securoerats' of the British secret state (MI5, SAS, RUC, Special Branch, etc.) Which camp would you rather be in?
Anyone who thinks that Sinn Fein, by taking part in the talks process, were in a position of weakness is seriously mistaken. Remember that this whole process was actually kicked off by the Republican Movement. The Hume/Adams talks should really have been called the Adams/Hume talks, because it was Sinn Fein rather than the SDLP who initiated the process. Republicanism not only had an overall strategy, it also set the agenda throughout this phase of the struggle. Gerry Adams said at the end of the all party talks that it was not a historic moment, only the start of another stage in the political process. We should listen carefully to what Adams and McGuinness are saying, rather than being fooled by the bluff and bluster of Trimble and company. As Gerry Kelly, councillor, ex-prisoner, and a member of Sinn Fein's negotiating team said, on Easter Tuesday in Ardoyne, "We want a national democracy. We want a United Ireland. Does it (the agreement) help or hinder it? That's the very basic question in all of this... This is our struggle. We're the experts on this issue."
Unionism will never be the same after these talks. The difference between the negotiations of the 1990's and those of the 1920's is that it is unionism rather than republicanism which is having to swallow the bitter pill of betrayal. Trimble is caught between a rock and a hard place. He knows that the British Establishment want out and he also knows that they are prepared to abandon him, if he doesn't tread carefully. Paisley looked like a tired old man outside Stormont when working class loyalists taunted and heckled him. This was significant because these are the very same people whom Paisley has always relied upon to deliver the hard-line loyalist votes for the DUP. Unionism's catchphrase word `No' is starting to wear thin with just about everybody.
The other sea-change may well be in Irish nationalism. In the 26 Counties, Sinn Fein have come from the position where, in the early 90's, they were forced to hold their Ard Fheis in a Dublin community centre due to a state ban. Now they are setting the political agenda in Ireland; certainly in the north, and they very soon will be in the south as well! The SDLP are worried that Sinn Fein may eat into their vote now that the war appears to be over, increasing their appeal to middle class nationalist voters. Whatever happens there's a lot more yet to be gone through than signing treaties and basking in the Brits' illusory `peace' .
As for decommissioning, even Billy Hutchison of the PUP/UVF wasn't falling for that one. On his way out of the talks he commented that, "decommissioning was never on the agenda. there won't be any weapons getting handed over by loyalists, and I don't expect you'll be getting any from the other lot either!" The forgotten man, John Major, has been wheeled back in by New Labour to promote this non-issue. This indicates that the Brits have already conceded that there will be no decommissioning this side of a united Ireland. On this issue, it might be prudent to remember what James Connolly said to the Irish Citizen's Army on the eve of the Easter Rising, "Hold on to your rifles..."