Britain squandering the chance of peace

By Hilda Mac Thomas, An Phoblacht/Republican News, 12 January 1995

IT WOULD BE EASY for an untrained observer, to confuse ‘peace process’ and ‘peace’, and file ‘Northern Ireland’ under ‘solved conflicts’. Yet all there is since last Autumn is a complete cessation by the IRA, a conditional cessation by loyalist death squads, and some gestures by the British government.

These gestures include the ending of a ludicrous media ban started in 1988, the reopening of a number of border roads, and the ending of exclusion orders preventing some people travelling to Britain.

A year ago, Irish nationalists were examining the declaration jointly signed in Downing Street by the Dublin and London governments, an ambiguous document which cried out for clarification. Several months were wasted through London's stubborn refusal to clarify the declaration. A broad spectrum of politicians joined with republicans to put pressure on London, which finally issued clarifications of sorts in May 1993.

Today, the British government is stalling on another issue—that of the handing over or decommissioning of arms and explosives by the IRA as a precondition for Sinn Fein's involvement in all-party talks. Nowhere else in the world has this thorny issue been dealt with in isolation from, or prior to, an overall political settlement.

Today, the Dublin government, RUC and garda chiefs, and many political parties, agree that the issue of arms should not be pushed forward as an obstacle to the peace process. One suspects even British Prime Minister John Major does not believe that this should be so.

Yet once again we are witnessing the same stalling tactics. No talks unless the cease-fire is ‘permanent’, said the British government last September. Three-and-a-half months later, Sinn Fein started exploratory talks with British civil servants at Stormont, London apparently satisfied with ‘complete’. Today the handing over of weapons is used in the same way. British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew last week spoke of the need for significant progress on the question of weapons. The subtle game of semantic hide-and-seek continues. But once again precious time is being wasted.

The British government has been stalling the Irish peace process since 1993. The reason is their refusal to deal with the core issue—the right of Irish people to devise their own political settlement by agreement and without any outside interference. This requires the British to recognise that the days of British rule in Ireland are reaching an end, and that all Irish people, including unionists, must start discussing their own form of government.

Continued British stalling, and their continued support for the unionist veto, is the main obstacle to peace. As Mitchel McLaughlin put it at the weekend, Patrick Mayhew's comment that ‘mainstream’ political parties would not sit down with Sinn Fein are misleading, arrogant and offensive and an incitement to unionists to resist political dialogue and change. Today, the British government would have a hard job convincing international opinion that they are neutral and honest peace brokers. And there are signs that an increasing body of opinion, in Ireland and abroad, is coming to that view.

Political and media reaction to the IRA cessation in Europe described the IRA gesture as courageous and made it clear that what was needed now was the same courage from the British side. In the United States there is growing irritation in Irish-American circles at London's delay in moving forward.

In Ireland, British foot-dragging in relation to demilitarisation and the prisons came under attack even from former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, who went as far as accusing the British of endangering the peace process.

And last Monday's Irish Times editorial wrote: There is growing unease among nationalist politicians in the North and in official circles in Dublin that London is not according sufficient priority to the peace process and is stumbling along without a clear strategy.

John Major's domestic difficulties have been used to explain British strategy in the last 18 months: his dwindling majority in Westminster, his increased dependency on unionists, the right-wing backbench snapping at his heels.

But the British government has failed to explain in a clear and logical fashion what they mean to do to facilitate and promote agreement among the people of Ireland. Their attitude to unionists has been placating and supportive, and amounts to a ‘carte blanche’ to resist change and remain stuck in the past.

Paras are still patrolling West Belfast. Public Interest Immunity Certificates are still being issued to soldiers and RUC members in order to pervert the course of justice, as in the Pearse Jordan inquest. Prisoners have had their parole refused at Christmas on the most spurious of grounds. Why should unionists even think in terms of change?

Sinn Fein has spelled out its position clearly. It is entitled to be involved in all-party talks on the basis of its electoral mandate, not as a concession, as Ard Chomhairle member Martin McGuinness pointed out in the Sunday Business Post.

There can be no internal settlement in the Six Counties. Demilitarisation must be all-encompassing and part of an overall settlement, and it is not about disarming the nationalist community ahead of a settlement, as the British and the unionists are demanding.

Irish nationalists and democrats around the world want to see the Irish people getting together to map their future, not the British government and the unionists repeating the past with all its injustices.