Red Action No. 72: Autumn/Winter 1995.
By adopting a bard line stance on the less contentious issues, the British are hoping to create an illusion of strength that belies the reality of the political position they have been forced into. An example of this was their refusal to move on the issue of Republican prisoners. When Republicans in Whitemoor began the dirty protest Major attempted to echo the stance of Thatcher during the hunger strikes when she claimed that `Britain has no Political prisoners', The petty refusal to allow open diplomatic visits between the POW's and Irish politicians was an attempt to reinforce the `no political prisoners' line. This statement merely presented the British stance as unreasonable and triumphal, which is exactly the impression Major wished to convey. By blindly repeating a formula which he believed had been successful previously Major managed not to upset back bench Tories and Unionists but within days he had returned three Republican POW's to the Six Counties. However it is important that Republicans do not become complacent on the prisoners issue, despite the early releases of Republicans in the 26 counties. While repatriation is an important issue for families' of prisoners and for the movement as a whole it must be only a step on the road to full release of POW's as soon as possible. The debate about the restoration of remission, from 33% up to 50%, is a diversion from the clear demand of immediate release: As former POW Ray McCartney pointed out at the last Saoirse Conference in Dublin "50% of 20 years is still too long to serve for POW's."
After the Ormeau Road RUC riot, when plastic bullets and violent assaults were used against nationalists engaging in peaceful protest against a sectarian march, the RUC claimed that an investigation would be carried out into the incident. The provocative behaviour of loyalists and the savage police attack on nationalists, as well as the decision to allow the Apprentice Boys to march on the walls of Derry led to a heightening of the tension by loyalists during the `marching season'. This new crisis in the peace process, directly provoked by the Loyalists and the RUC, served the interests of the British by allowing them attack Adams when he made the self evident comment that `the IRA had not gone away'. The media orchestrated furore about Adam's comment overshadowed the later announcement by the Royal Black Institution, an orange faction, that it had decided against holding two more marches on the Ormeau Road.
A relevant question would be not who is controlling the nationalist protests but rather who is pulling the strings of the loyalist marchers? The fact that the RUC will protect loyalists and attack nationalists being obvious, it would appear that the decision of the Black Institution may be directed by Britain to quell the rising anger in nationalist areas.
The British demand for IRA decommissioning, never mentioned as a precondition for talks in the run up to the cease-fire, emerged throughout the summer as their excuse for not entering negotiations. This fact was pointed out by Gene Kerrigan in the right wing `Sunday Independent'. "The position of the British government is that any dialogue could only follow a halt to violent activity. It is understood that in the first instance this would have to be unannounced. If violence had genuinely been brought to an end, whether or not that fact had been announced, then progressive dialogue could take place."
This British document, from March 1993, clearly uses the phrase `end to violent activity' as the precondition for the entry into negotiations, not the surrender of IRA arms. By now adopting a stance demanding decommissioning Britain is hoping to win the peace by splitting the nationalist consensus. Britain hopes, through continually demanding an IRA surrender - which is what `decommissioning' actually means - that some elements of nationalism, possibly the SDLP, Dublin or even a section of Sinn Fein, will also urge the IRA to give up their arms in return for all party talks. Such a development would allow Britain to claim victory over the `terrorists' and sit down for inconclusive talks with a toothless Republican movement. However all the Irish parties; with differing motivations, realise the impossibility of forcing the IRA to hand over weapons. Adams has made it clear that he does not have the power to deliver up IRA arms and the British are aware that this is the case. Thus it can be seen that the British precondition is based on an impossible scenario and is merely a further method of protracting the period of time between the cessation and negotiations. This has nothing to do with what was previously presented as a period of `decontamination' for Sinn Fein, the revelation that British representatives had been in secret discussions with Republicans for two years, while the war was going on, put paid to the notion of a `quarantine' period.
Major's attempt at talking tough before coming to compromise agreement is a classic negotiating ploy. However the reality is that it is Britain which is making all the `concessions', but they are only concessions to the extent that the obstacle has been created by the British in the first place. If Major had genuinely wished to resolve the crisis brought about by the release of the Para murderer Lee Clegg he could have announced repatriation, increased remission, or at a minimum improved prison conditions after his victory in the Tory election. The failure of the Tories to take any of these easy steps to resolve the deadlock exposes their strategy as one of trying to force Sinn Fein into a position where it will lose international support, while Britain simultaneously attempts to hold the support of unionists and ignores the opinions of the Irish government. Major is walking a very precarious tightrope. An indication of this was Major's adviser Andrew Hunter claiming that no Unionist party would agree to all party talks until decommissioning of republican weapons was under way. However the position of the UDP and the PUP at this time was the exact opposite, the PUP was stressing the release of loyalist prisoners while the UDP Executive member David Adams said that: "It is unrealistic to say the least, given the nature, history and reasons for our conflict to demand decommissioning to be undertaken by any side in isolation, as a precondition for entry into talks or as part of a quid pro quo for the release of prisoners. Neither can decommissioning be expected to take place in a situation, such as exists at present, where. there is an absence of trust in the bona fides of each other, in the process itself and in the political future." (David Adams. Irish News 31st .July 1995).
The British are not being bloody minded by delaying talks for as long as possible. There is a clear British agenda and strategy to be detected in the prevarication about initiating all party talks. Shortly before the cease-fire the British were staring the stark reality of continued and intensified IRA bombings throughout Britain. The sheer diversity and ingenuity of IRA targets in Britain left the police confounded. Despite the fact that up to a dozen volunteers from different ASU's have been jailed in Britain in recent years IRA actions in Britain intensified and became more audacious, such as the repeated mortars fired at Heathrow airport. In October 1992 there were 14 IRA bombs in London alone and in 1993 the Baltic exchange explosion caused over £1 billion worth of damage. With the IRA campaign in Britain now concentrating on political and economic targets, not just military establishments, the British were forced to the negotiating table. Sammy Wilson of the DUP in one of his more rational moments, recognised that Major would negotiate with the IRA whilst the Republican armoury remained intact: `The reason for this weakness is that John Major will do anything to avoid more bombs in London, and at the behest of leading financial figures he has decided that surrender is the only policy'.
From the perspective of the British establishment it is essential for the future, both politically and economically, of the `United Kingdom', that the public does not become aware that the British army failed to defeat a tiny number of IRA volunteers. Having failed abysmally over 25 years in their attempts to win the war, Britain is now attempting to `win the peace'.