Waging Peace

While for all the obvious reasons the IRA matters, A. Shaw explains why Sinn Fein is the new power house in the partnership - at least for now.

"A beaver with a new tooth brush" was how someone described hardline Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson as the clock ticked down on yet another absolute deadline while in the background Blair was telling anyone prepared to listen "that there was no Plan B". Similar displays of giddiness at just such a prospect were apparent in media liberals Trimble and Maginnis, unwittingly captured live on Newsnight guffawing loudly, seconds before solemnly announcing 'on air ' that agreement was impossible due to SF/IRA intransigence.

The following day Tony Blair toured Stormont declaring that there had been a "seismic shift" in Sinn Fein thinking. To which his old friend David Trimble correctly responded: "What fucking seismic shift?" (Sunday Telegraph 4.7.99) His exasperation was unduly vocal given his understanding the game had already been won. Which is to say the status quo prevailed. 'Just say no ' has been mainstream Unionism's negotiating position since 1912, and neither it nor they have moved an inch since. For Unionism life cannot imaginably get any better, so any change is necessarily negative. 'How many Unionists does it take to change a light bulb? ' is the impasse approached from another direction. 'Change? Who said anything about change? '

"Destablising the situation" was of course the instinctive response of Trimble 's predecessor to news of the IRA ceasefire in 1994. So naturally, any concessions real or imaginary, any perceived softening of the SF position during negotiations immediately registered as a threat. And so rather than respond positively Trimble was most concerned with shoring up any possible breach in his defenses, by piling on in the precise areas where SF appeared to be offering concessions further pre-conditions. For fifteen months Unionism has refused to implement any aspects of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which they had signed up to, so the more the pressure mounted the more monosyllabic the response. More than a touch exasperated Adams repeatedly drew the world media's attention to Unionist body language, explaining that SF proposals to, in the time worn phrase, 'move the situation forward ' were being rejected in minutes by the UUP. And of course the more Republicans "stretched themselves", albeit, and all importantly within the terms of the GFA ( 'SF would encourage the IRA "to dump arms" only in the context of an overall settlement '), the more imminently reasonable appeared the Republican position, the more beleaguered Trimble and his colleagues became. At 4am one morning Trimble was challenged in the corridor by Loyalist stalwart Cedric Wilson who inquired "Are you holding the line on decomissioning?" Trimble answered "I can't find the line." (Scotland on Sunday 4.7.99) Trimble 's colleagues were stunned.

Unionist disarray was understandable. 'A Protestant State for a Protestant people ' cannot credibly survive the idea of unarmed Catholics in power, much less reputed members of the Army Council in the Cabinet. And without Unionism as a centrifugal ideological force, the knot attaching the Six Counties to Britain would likely unravel of it's own accord. A scenario long recognised by the likes of ultra-Unionist Lord Cranbourne, M15, strident editorials in the right-wing press and belatedly the leadership of the Tory party. Ultimately for the right-wing of the establishment and Unionism itself, what matters is not decommisioning but keeping Unionism motivated: that is to say ideologically pure.

A position summarised by a 65 year old Orangeman who stated: "We have already given too much away. Even if they turned up with a truck load of weapons it would not make any difference because they can always get more" (Independent 3.7.99). Which is to say the surrender of weapons would make 'no difference ' to Unionism ever countenancing SF in government. After all whether armed or unarmed an 'unreconstructed ' Republican is still a Republican. Never mind the supposed triumph of ballot box over Armalite, Unionism has "dug in" and all democrats and right thinking people should support them "to prevent" according to former Thatcher adviser Simon Heffer, "criminals and murderers having a share in a constitutional process that they could never obtain other than by force." (Daily Mail 3. 7. 99) Or as another Mail columnist Steven Glover put it, if the outcome of the negotiations is a genuine representative democracy "peace is too high a price to pay".

What a turn up. Throughout the '70s the Union was defended by the pretence that the Republican movement was a criminal conspiracy without public support. A strategy dashed with the election of Bobby Sands in 1981, and the 'Armalite and ballot box ' strategy adopted thereafter. And while the right-wing of the Establishment might like to pretend that SF are in position courtesy only of the IRA, the unpalatable reality is a party which commands over 40% of the nationalist vote in the North and is increasingly being recognised as the radical alternative in the South, enjoys a political mandate created entirely off it 's own efforts.

Moreover, while for all the obvious reasons "the army" certainly matters, "the party" is undeniably the new power house of the Republican movement. So even while the prospects of 'bombs in London ' continue to focus Brit minds wonderfully it is the political strategy which has come closest to breaking the stalemate. By any means, including if necessary, exclusively legal methods is the Republican gameplan that brought Unionism 'trembling ' to the edge of the abyss. "There is one firm rule that governs the political strategy of Sinn Fein/IRA: exhaust the weaponry that you have until the enemy has perfected his defence. Then produce the weapon that negates those defenses... Thus you continuously stretch your enemy, force him on the defensive and maintain the initiative (Daily Telegraph 6.7.99). This according to IRA renegade/M15 spook Sean O'Callaghan is what Republicanism is now doing to Unionism. He explains the modus operandi thus: "if the IRA can fire a large mortar 500 yards and it 's engineers devise one capable of throwing a larger one longer, the improved version is not introduced until the enemy has gone to great lengths to perfect it 's defenses against the (now obsolete) mortar".

Given that it was not uncommon in the late '80s for the Northern Ireland Office to smugly boast of having reduced the terrorist threat to "an acceptable level of violence", ie. perfected their defenses against mortar Mark l (armed struggle) the absolute dismay caused by the introduction of mortar Mark 2 (peace strategy) proved, as was intended, all the more demoralising for the defenders of the status quo.

Certainly if body language, time and effort, u-turns, broken deadlines, broken promises, exaggerations and outright lies is anything to go by, Tony Blair very definitely 'wants out '.

Nothing unique in this of course, British PM 's with various degrees of intensity having been trying to painlessly get out, ie. 'leave without being seen to have left ' for at least 30 years. But having concluded in order to get out mainstream Unionism must be faced down, both he and Bertie Ahern spent the twelve months since the signing of the GFA pandering to Unionism with the pretence the 'just say no ' veto had somehow been incorporated into it. A strategy that succeeded in both confusing an already extremely divided and dysfunctional Unionist family unneccesarily, and rebounded as a self fulfiling prophecy.

A wrong headed approach compounded by the last minute offer of legislation tying decommissioning to the exclusion of SF, which ran against the letter and spirit of GFA, which dismayed nationalism and was predictably rejected as insufficient by Unionism. Then unbelievably, Blair added yet further amendments even after it had been passed by Parliament. (A devastatingly effective guarantee against any future accusations of Machiavellism surely.) At that stage rather than further palliatives, Blair in true statesman like fashion should if he really knew what he was doing, have taken a leaf out of Mo Mowlam 's book, who when tired of being badgered by an incalcerant Paisley told him if he didn't like what was on offer to "fuck off."

Fundamentally, where Blair differs from his Prime Ministerial predecessors like Lloyd George is that the broad strategy initiative he is responding to, and has in his own interests embraced, was never of his own design. When he "says there is no Plan B" it is not hard believe him, as neither he nor indeed Major ever had anything to do with the original Plan A. "The IRA cessation of 1994" had no British sponsorship of any kind, but was as Adams himself made clear "built on the [combined] work of Sinn Fein, John Hume, Albert Reynolds and Irish America" (Guardian 7.7.99). And in that order of merit. So in line with the evolving situation the original architects of Plan A, will be getting ready to introduce Plan B, while at the same studying closely the drawings for Plan C, if not plan D.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 2, Aug/Sept '99