Twelve Days In May

Red Action No.75: Autumn 1997.
The war is over and the good guys have lost." This was Bernadette McAliskey's verdict on the IRA cease-fire in August 1994. This view was shared in part by the entire British Left almost. But behind the crocodile tears at imperialism's triumph most were exultant that the good guys had lost.

"Even Arafat" the, SWP crowed "got Gaza, Adams got nothing!" Generally the Republican leadership was castigated for `making deals with imperialism' particularly by those who invariably canvass for Labour in elections. While sharing the popular mood the RCP were a little less triumphalist but equally emphatic: "There is no avoiding the grim reality that the peace process represents a historic defeat for the liberation movement." Significantly while the British Left were in agreement on the reality of the IRA surrender if not the reasons behind it, the British establishment whose initiative it was deemed to be and therefore whose analysis might be expected to be more astute were evenly split.

Some maintained that the IRA were quite simply beaten, and that there was in fact `no peace process just peace'. Others felt that the terrorists had moved `centre stage'. The right-wing Spectator gnashed: "To say the [Downing St] Declaration was a great victory for the IRA is not rhetoric; it is hard gradgrind fact."

Controversially the position of the Red Action paper went quite a bit further than the Spectator. In a series of leading articles it argued:

1. The cease-fire was part of an IRA/Republican rather than British agenda.

2. Consequently it was neither a surrender of military methods or political aims.

3. The Hume/Adams talks which formed the basis for the Downing St Declaration would be more correctly titled Adams/Hume.

4. The Bishopsgate bomb was the lever for talks and more might follow if talks collapsed.

5. That there would be no hand over of weapons.

6. An internal settlement was too little too late.

7. Unionism would join constitutional talks or be represented by a surrogate.

8. Sooner or later loyalism would be forced to swallow the bitter pill of betrayal.

9. Major did not know there was going to be a cease-fire and was deliberately misled about the possibility of it collapsing.

10. M15 with media help was working to derail the peace process.

11. The cease fire took place on the understanding that all-party negotiations-would take place with the purpose of an interim settlement as part of accommodating a face-saving British withdrawal.

12. Until the IRA's faith in Britain's intent to withdraw is restored, all party talks or not, the cease-fire won't be.

(The last comment on the matter was in Spring 1996)

Events, and the release of internal Republican documents since, have gone a long way toward validating the Red Action analysis of August 1994 and after. However, back in 1994 Commentators gave the credit for persuading the IRA to abandon violence to Major/Hume/Clinton more or less in that order. Few believe that now. The cease-fire ended when the IRA leadership concluded that the British had reneged on the core reason for holding discussions. But if the British do not want to leave after all, the purpose of negotiations with or without preconditions, would only mean the active collaboration of the republican leadership in securing for the British an internal settlement. This is what republicans mean when they accuse the British government of `bad faith'.

And what applied to Major/Mayhew now applies to Blair/Mowlam. Which is something they only very recently seem to have grasped. Initially they began where Major left off: tough talk of `last chances' and `trains leaving stations' was familiar to all and just as contemptuously dismissed. The reality is that the 1994 cessation of armed struggle had fundamentally reinforced and changed perceptions particularly on the nationalist side. Unionist intransigence and Brit duplicity has been the nationalist conclusion at the ending of a 17 month cease-fire.

So when, in talks with Sinn Fein, Labour began where the Tories left off i.e. decommissioning; Lurgan was the answer. The message was graphically clear. We have had enough of British ultimatums. It is not us, but you the British, that needs to convince on the question of war or peace. Prior to the cease-fire the argument ran that the only impediment to a negotiated settlement and a united Ireland was armed struggle. Violence was futile and counter productive. Britain was neutral: Loyalism was merely counter-terrorism. If only the men of violence could be made to lay down their arms Britain could be counted on to respond `imaginatively'.

This seductive mantra was repeated by all parties but with particular doggedness by the SDLP Then in September 1994 the IRA called the collective bluff. A disorientated Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux in an unguarded moment spoke of "the cease-fire destabilising the situation". Major bluffed and blustered destroying, his credibility internationally in the process. Hume already almost isolated within his own party gave the impression of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And any wonder. To a man British commentators were largely bemused not knowing what to make of it all.

So much for the `generous and imaginative response'. If that was not bad enough for Hume and the SDLP, worse was to come. First the Paisley/Trimble victory jig after SDLP influence helped broker a deal among the Garvaghy residents which allowed the Orange Order to march in 1995. Then came Drumcree 2. A twenty five year old snapshot of how it all began and what the struggle was all about. A scenario that as it unfolded shot thirty thousand plastic bullets through the concept of an internal settlement while the loyalist pogroms made nationalists everywhere think fondly of the IRA. This mood change has been reflected in successive elections, first to the Forum, to the General Elections in the six and twenty six counties and the six county council elections.

"Certainly the Drumcree factor played a part in increasing Sinn Fein's vote. But Sinn Fein's opponents held back from saying why. The truth is that Drumcree confirmed the Sinn Fein analysis of the northern state. In the weeks after Drumcree last year republicans lost count of the number of times that people came up to them and said: "You were, right all along." The other side of the coin is that the SDLP was wrong. Most, not all SDLP elected representatives, had no wish to think too deeply about the flawed nature of the state. They tried to work within it and gain what they could, supporting the RUC - Drumcree blew their ideological world apart. They could not explain what had happened much less do anything in response." (Brian Campbell Republican News, 29 May 1997)

Then came Drumcree 3 where the betrayal was actually carried out by a Labour government that Hume had warmly welcomed and confidently expected great things of. In 1985 the Hillsborough Agreement was sold to the British as necessary to save the SDLP from the Provo's. Then the Provo's had 30 per cent of the nationalist vote, now they have 45 per cent. Who is going to save the SDLP now? Certainly not the Unionists, who themselves approached Drumcree 3 in a state of intransigent trepidation. The Protestant RUC was faced with the task of confronting the Orange Order, while the latter was equally unnerved by the prospect of offending, never mind facing down, the Loyalist paramilitaries. As one leading and harassed Portadown Orangeman told a senior NIO official late at night during the stand off in 1996: "If we don't go down the Garvaghy Rd, we the Orange leaders will be burned out of our own houses". That reality was borne out by the kicking to death of an RUC man by Loyalists in Antrim in June. So, from the outset, it was clear that Drumcree 3 was a trap set by loyalism for itself. Which is precisely what the delegation from the spook community, led by Andrew Hunter (known as MP for Johannesburg through his former association with BOSS) and MI5's Sean O'Callaghan would have told them when they met in the week prior to the Garvaghy Road march. "The credibility of moderate nationalism is in tatters. The Provo's are in the ascendancy. The British slap in the face to the new Irish government has gone some way to restoring the pan-nationalist front demolished by Bruton. Unionist intransigence also caused the end of the Labour honeymoon at home and internationally. Revenge will certainly be exacted. Precisely because Labour's reputation as peace brokers has evaporated, the effort will of course still have to be made. Which means that sooner or later the bluff will have to be called and unionism faced down. In the meantime Mowlam, if she is still there will have to talk to the credible representatives of nationalist opinion - Sinn Fein. Paisley/Trimble insist that should that happen they as unionists will not be there. But, unlike Sinn Fein, for the peace talks to happen they don't have to be. Unionism can be represented by a surrogate - the British government. Negotiations after all are carried out between enemies not friends. So magnanimity is the card to play".

Robert Salter, the head of the Orange Order, saw the trap all right. But he also knew that the ethos of `not an inch' unionism means that there is no room for subtle manoeuvres. Any perceived loss of face of this magnitude means instant internal crisis - and fratricide sooner or later. The subsequent climb-down in Derry and the Ormeau Road showed that the rest of the leadership also recognised that this time they had over-played their hand, and because of it; international opinion had finally begun to draw the distinction between freedom from religious and political persecution and what the Orange Order represented, which is the freedom to practice it.

Despite efforts to put a PR varnish on the capitulation, the backlash was swift, with damage of historic proportions. Before you could say `DOB', the Orange Order had conceded its reason for being; Unionist parties lost the argument on decommissioning and instantly put another major piece of the intricate IRA jigsaw in place, and, most significantly; for the first time in living memory, unionism lost its right of automatic veto - all in twelve days in May.
Despite Republican reminders that negotiations are an area of struggle, not an end of the struggle and despite the possibility of further skirmishing, the feeling that we are in the endgame persists. The endgame moreover of a Republican agenda. And although the war is not over, it can be said with some confidence that the good guys are in pole position.