Mick Kennedy asks if 1993 will be the year Britain finally imposes a
solution on its longest-running colonial conflict
Republicans under pressure
Just before Christmas Northern Ireland minister Patrick Mayhew offered to
withdraw British troops to barracks and to negotiate over a united Ireland
with Sinn Fein if only the IRA repudiated the armed struggle (Daily Telegraph,
17 December). Mayhew's speech provoked predictable outrage in predictable
quarters. Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley denounced it as 'wicked
and shameless' and the Sunday Telegraph considered it 'appallingly
misjudged' (20 December).
Shrewder politicians and commentators recognised Mayhew's statement as the
latest coded message attempting to draw the leadership of the Irish republican
movement into talks on Britain's terms. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
briskly repudiated Mayhew's proposal as 'the Pax Britannica formula which
has created the political conflict in Ireland for generations' (An Phoblacht/Republican
News, 17 December). However, Adams promised to study the speech in detail
before giving a fuller response.
Mayhew's appeal was targeted explicitly at 'leading Sinn Fein members who
voice their wish for a peaceful solution and their desire to follow a constitutional
path'. This influential trend within Sinn Fein was reflected in the February
1992 policy document, Towards a Lasting Peace, and in a series of
talks last year with Protestant clergymen and with the Catholic bishop of
Adams' detailed response to Mayhew, published in AP/RN on 31 December,
was more significant for what it omitted than for what it included. Mayhew's
central condition for admitting Sinn Fein to talks - the IRA's abandonment
of violence - is simply ignored. While reassuring republican activists of
the leadership's commitment to ending partition and pursuing national self-determination,
Adams' repeated emphasis is on Sinn Fein's 'democratic mandate' to negotiate
and its readiness to engage in 'comprehensive' talks without preconditions.
Acknowledging Britain's reluctance to involve Sinn Fein in such a 'peace
process', Adams looks to Dublin, to the EC, the UN and the USA (now with
a president who made some opportunist noises to secure the Irish vote).
Adams' evident desperation to be involved in talks with Britain reflects
the intensifying pressures on the republican movement and the narrowing
of its options. After 24 years of heroic resistance to the ruthless coercion
of the British military occupation, several factors are now converging to
give Britain a decisive advantage.
The international balance of forces in the post-Cold War world has swung
gravely to the disadvantage of national liberation movements. Since the
collapse of the Soviet Union, radical nationalist movements and regimes
have everywhere been in retreat; some have collapsed, others have been forced
to settle largely on the oppressors' terms. The other side of this coin
is the new freedom enjoyed by the major Western powers to intervene in third
world countries, to dictate political terms and, if defied, to threaten - and
indeed to deploy - military force.
The very institutions to which Sinn Fein looks for support - the EC, the
UN - are at the cutting edge of the new imperialism. A pre-Christmas letter
from congressman Joseph Kennedy (son of Robert and regarded as a sympathetic
Irish-American politician) to Adams indicates the likely direction of US
policy under Bill Clinton (Daily Telegraph, 17 December). He bitterly
condemned the IRA bombing campaign and urged Adams to call it off. As the
Telegraph's Irish correspondent noted, this letter was 'part of a
concerted drive to force the IRA into ending its campaign of violence permanently'.
The changing international climate has reduced pressure on Britain over
a war that once caused it some embarrassment. Though last year's inter-party
talks in Northern Ireland collapsed in November, they helped to strengthen
Britain's authority in diplomatic circles. Through these talks the British
government brought closer the Unionists and the nationalist SDLP in the
North, the Northern parties - including the Unionists - and the Dublin government,
and the governments in London and Dublin. These manoeuvres helped to isolate
and marginalise Sinn Fein, and to push republicans towards accepting the
terms agreed by all the mainstream parties.
Britain has also enjoyed more freedom to enforce its rule in Ireland through
military might and sectarian terror. While Mayhew talks of withdrawing troops
to barracks, they retain a high profile in nationalist areas, and their barracks
and forts have been extended and reinforced into a sophisticated network
of surveillance and repression.
Last year was the first in the Irish War in which Loyalist sectarian assassinations
topped the list of fatalities. The fact that nine Sinn Fein members have
also fallen victim to these murderous gangs reflects the extent of British
military intelligence collaboration with the Loyalist paramilitaries. It
is only when they have British assistance that the Loyalists are able to
go beyond random attacks on Catholics. Another measure of the strength of
Britain's position is that the exposure of such links caused the government
little embarrassment at home or abroad.
There can be little doubt that the cumulative effect of more than a decade
of British and Loyalist barbarism has been demoralising for the beleaguered
nationalist communities of Northern Ireland.
The recent elections in the South were also a blow to the republican movement.
Not only did Sinn Fein candidates fare uniformly badly, but the final emergence
of a Fianna Fail/Labour Party coalition government in Dublin, with Labour
leader Dick Spring in charge of Northern affairs, is a major boost to Britain.
It means that Dublin's constitutional claims to jurisdiction over the North,
long-resented by Unionists and championed by nationalists, will now be up
In the event, despite Mayhew's conciliatory offer and Adams' cautious response,
the Christmas ceasefire proved short-lived. Within days there were more bombs
going off in litter bins in London and more sectarian assassinations in
Northern Ireland. Yet the initiative remains in British hands and the republican
movement remains on the defensive, hoping to overcome its military and political
impasse through talks. The problem is that any solution negotiated under
the existing balance of forces could only reinforce British domination over
the whole of Ireland.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993