Red Action No. 69: Autumn 1994.
For 25 years the British government has insisted that it is not engaged in a war which can be resolved by negotiations or treaties. The IRA, it said, was nothing more than a band of common criminals; a settlement with them was as unthinkable as one with the Kray gang. Today it is obvious that if there is to be a settlement it will be a negotiated one. But do the negotiations, "knocking heads together rather than knocking teeth out" as one republican spokesperson envisaged the process represent an IRA victory or an IRA defeat? Nobody knows. That is nobody in Britain knows. This includes British intelligence who apparently believed that an immediate cease-fire would follow the Downing St Declaration in December. And in that confusion and ignorance lies the answer.
In the same week the IRA cease-fire was announced, Neal Ascherson in the Independent on Sunday admitted that, having closely monitored media speculation throughout the week, he was, "staggered to discover that nobody had the faintest idea what to make of it". However the wild hypotheses offered by various `experts' still went a long way to answering the question. The answer was staring them in the face, but still the penny did not drop. If the British government did not know what was going on, then the cease-fire was not part of a Brit agenda. As the media grappled with this realisation, credit for ending the violence was offered, with various degrees of conviction to the American administration; John Hume; Fianna Fail. Indeed anybody but the architects of the peace process; the leadership of the Provisional IRA. The reason for the omission is clear. If indeed the cease-fire is part of an IRA agenda, it is out of strength rather than weakness and represents the beginning rather than the end of the process with more surprises to follow.
An IRA agenda means that the IRA have NOT bombed their way to the negotiating table: the `table' would not exist without them. It is their table. Far, far worse. The reality is they have bombed Britain there.
Proof of an `IRA agenda' and the foresight of the republican movement can be traced by the chronology of events. In1988 the republican movement published two discussion documents entitled: A Scenario for Peace; and Towards a Lasting Peace. These documents subsequently formed the basis for discussions between Gerry Adams and John Hume leader of the SDLP. These talks were not warmly welcomed; Hume was universally condemned for breaching protocol by talking to the men of violence. The unionists referred to him as a `dupe', yet Adams convinced him that it was a risk worth taking. After about 18 months the talks petered out. The war continued. In April 1993 it was leaked that Adams and Hume had again resumed dialogue and in September when they announced they had reached agreement, there was consternation. Hume was again denounced. The Dublin government refused to handle anything bearing Adams' `thumbprints'. Major declared that the thought of talking to Adams "turned his stomach". The strain on Hume, isolated as he was within his own party, was intense. If the IRA were not serious his career and reputation were finished. He needed constant reassurance. Throughout the negotiations with Dublin the republicans sat, as one described it, `literally holding his hand'. Eventually, when, in November, Hume collapsed of exhaustion, the Irish Taoiseach was handed the baton and began the next stage of the relay in talks with John Major. At the same time parallel discussions unknown to Dublin were being conducted between the British government and the IRA. Confronted by rumours of contacts with republicans, Sir Patrick Mayhew tried to reassure loyalists describing one report as belonging, "more properly in the fantasy of spy thrillers than in real life". Loyalists were not reassured. Then, possibly as an impetus to the talks between Dublin and London, Sinn Fein confirmed loyalist paranoia. Mayhew was humiliated. Britain in an effort to synchronise their public and private positions insisted that the Provisionals had initiated the contact with a communiqué that began: "The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close." In response the IRA made public the documentary evidence of the exchanges which left it in no doubt it was the republican movement from whom advice was required. In December 1993 Reynolds and Major signed the Downing St Declaration. At British insistence neither government referred to its parentage: the Hume/Adams talks. This was understandable. For Adams/Hume; Hume/Reynolds; Reynolds/Major were the necessary preliminaries to the main bout Adams/Major. And unlike previous occasions when the Brits and the `IRA' sat around the table as in 1972 and `75, this time as part of the republican strategy, they would do so publicly.
Expectation of a republican response to the Downing St declaration was intense. They obstinately demanded clarification. Major insisted none was necessary. There was much bluff and bluster from Dublin and London about "patience running out and carrying on the peace process without them". Eventually under international pressure Major caved in and detailed clarification was provided. In July Sinn Fein gave its response: accepting that the declaration was a step in the right direction but crucially was not in itself the basis for a solution. IRA REJECT PEACE! ran the headlines. But significantly Anglo-Irish talks were suspended in tacit acceptance that an element other than London and Dublin was setting the agenda. And again when the IRA announced the cease-fire nobody was more gobsmacked than the British government. Days earlier, Michael Ancram Minister of State privately dismissed rumours of a cease-fire as an IRA `gimmick'. (This needs to be put in perspective. In early August a twenty-five strong Red Action delegation to Belfast ALL knew that there was going to be a cease-fire. They KNEW it was going to begin in September though most understood it was to be of a three month duration. Major still believed it was only for three months a week after the IRA announced that it was a complete cessation.) On the day itself, within minutes of the announcement, timed to coincide with American breakfast news, Adams was conducting live interviews by phone on American television. In contrast the British government took hours to respond. Throughout the following week Major fussed over the word `permanent', in the process sacrificing any remaining credibility. Whoever was in control of the process, it certainly was not him.
Evidence of Adams' thumbprints apart, intense debate raged even within the republican movement itself. The secrecy with which the strategy was pursued created great alarm, in particular the genuine ignorance that existed over the basis for the initial Hume/Adams agreement. At a public meeting in Belfast in August a former prisoner who had served 16 years asked: `What right has Seamus Mallon (an SDLP MP) to see a document denied to me?' There was much suspicion, and even speculation privately of a sell-out, though this was more a result of inadequate political structures within Sinn Fein rather than an inadequate political strategy. (Within the IRA however, some felt that if the republican analysis was correct, that the Brits wanted out, then the time was ripe to launch the `Tet Offensive': hit the Brits with everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink.) So how might the irreconcilable be reconciled? Who had moved? Naturally there had to be a sell-out. The question was who was selling out who? The RCP's Irish Freedom Movement magazine reflecting much left wing opinion in England was emphatic:"There is no avoiding the grim reality that the peace process represents a historic defeat for the liberation movement." On the other hand the right wing Spectator journal gnashed: "Far from being marginalised the men of violence are to he moved centre stage. To say that the [Downing Street] Declaration was a great victory for the IRA is not rhetoric; it is hard Gradgrind fact."
Well, there can be little doubt as to who is centre stage. As to who has moved the evidence is equally stark. Margaret Thatcher once stated that the north of Ireland was, "...as English as Finchley..." Major and Mayhew have constantly repeated that their government has no "selfish, strategic or economic interest" in it. Accepting that it is indeed the British who have moved, the equally pertinent question it why now? It is readily admitted that the Baltic and Bishopsgate bombs carried a genuine and immediate threat to "London's pre-eminence as an international centre of capital… which increased the governments feeling that some sort of acclamation with the terrorists was inevitable." This, was no longer an `acceptable level of violence'. An IRA admission in October 1993 six months after Bishopsgate that " ...the IRA last summer were forced into abandoning 18 tons of explosives which were destined for six simultaneous bomb attacks on prestigious targets in London…" must have concentrated the British mind wonderfully. So is Britain preparing the way for a sell-out as loyalists contend? Stephen Glover in the Evening Standard thinks not: "Such a policy would be a suicide note for the British state. It could not be done. I am sure that Mr Major and Sir Patrick understand the dangers, and so I can't believe they are cynically planning a sell-out. But just because they are not planning a sell-out it does not mean there isn't going to be one. They are embarked on a process which they will be unable to control."
What then of the bloodbath scenario and the loyalist backlash, long presented by apologists as the justification for British occupation? Given that for a quarter of a century loyalist violence has been presented as reactive it was instructive to note that the instinctive response to the IRA cease-fire was to threaten `civil war'. But even as a notion this is fanciful. The loyalist paramilitaries lack the logistics, the political resolve and, crucially, a clear cut objective in the event of British withdrawal. Despite the seizure last November of two tons of explosives on a Polish registered ship at Teesport in Cleveland destined for the UVF, it is generally acknowledged that the entire operation was set up by MI5 with the cooperation of Polish Intelligence. Even if they had the gear, who would they bomb?
While the IRA have shown it possible to bomb someone out of your country, once they [Britain] had left it would be impossible [for Loyalists] to bomb them back in again. The more effective the military campaign the more effective the political alienation. And anyway bombing your `capital city' is hardly a display of loyalty that most people would comprehend.
Similarly bombing Dublin with or without help from British Intelligence would leave them instantly isolated nationally and internationally. Retribution could be expected to be swift. Nor do the Loyalists show the same commitment or resolve long associated with republicans. Their hunger strikes tend to begin after breakfast and end just before lunch; a recent roof-top protest in Crumlin Rd jail ended as soon as it got dark. Like the `laager louts' of the AWB when the time came, it transpired that they were prepared only to fight to the last drop of everyone else's blood. So if protracted military manoeuvres appear out of the question what room exists for political ones? Just as discouraging, since 1912 the preferred unionist strategy has been: Ulster says NO! And while the republican movement has produced its `Mandela' there is no hint of the emergence of a unionist De Klerk. If all the loyalist community can offer in the way of dialogue is monosyllabic, they will find themselves represented in negotiations by a surrogate, or safely ignored. A fate designed previously by Britain for the IRA.
If the future of unionism as a political entity is less than rosy what then the verdict on Britain, the co-accused? Since the mid 1980's at least, successive British administrations have wanted out. But they wanted to leave with dignity. During the 1981 Hunger-Strike Thatcher prophesied that the "IRA had played its last card." It was in fact directly the reverse. The IRA run the prisons. The screws have long ago lost the stomach for the fight. The position inside is a microcosm of a wider picture. Successive surveys of pubic opinion have shown that upwards of 60% are in favour of a British withdrawal. It is not that the British public are waving the white flag of surrender, it is more because they do not see it as their fight. After all, if the army is kicked out of Ulster; even a clear cut military victory would not be followed by a retributive invasion of the `mainland' by the IRA! So what do they care. As Edward Pearce pointed out in the Guardian: "The British voter doesn't give a damn for Ireland, united or otherwise. But a perceived withdrawal will be quickly seen as high-toned defeat, and that swiftly becomes very bad politics. How not to be there without having left is the conundrum of all British governments."
So while the British public are largely neutral in the governments fight with the IRA; being seen to lose would mean more than simply a loss of face.After Suez, Britain awoke to find that it was no longer a world power. Now the crisis is within what is defined by the state as it's border. The subsequent fallout will impact directly not only on the government of the day but on the state itself. No longer a colonial power, the British establishment may find that when the dust settles it is now without even a stable democracy. If so, then the Downing St Declaration may well come to be regarded as the longest suicide note in history.