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15 January 1998

Mo Mowlam's mothering instinct

Recent events in Northern Ireland reveal much about the relationship between Britain and Ireland, writes Brendan O'Neill

It has been an interesting two weeks in Northern Ireland. From the audacious killing of loyalist Billy Wright inside the Maze prison at the end of 1997 to the unveiling of Tony Blair's blueprint for a political settlement on 12 January, recent events reveal what the peace process in Northern Ireland is all about. Contrary to popular belief New Labour's aim is not to engage in a democratic discussion about the best way forward, but to treat the people of Northern Ireland like children by imposing a settlement.

The controversy began with the shooting of Billy Wright by the Irish National Liberation Army on 28 December. No decent person shed any tears over Wright - a lowlife loyalist who masterminded the murder of Catholics, even after he was imprisoned. But his killing sparked fears that the all-party talks would collapse as the fringe loyalist parties (the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party) threatened to pull out. Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam responded by visiting the Maze to allay loyalist fears that the government was making concessions to republicans.

Mowlam's visit was seen by many as a wild political gamble - in fact, it was entirely in keeping with New Labour policy in the Six Counties. From the proximity talks in July last year (where Blairites acted as mediators between the Orange Order and nationalists) to the updating of the Parades Commission in October (telling people what clothes to wear and what language to use), the Northern Ireland Office under New Labour has been treating nationalists and Unionists like children. Like a good mother Mowlam visited the Maze to reassure tantrum-throwing loyalist and republican prisoners that she had their best interests at heart.

It has always been accepted by outsiders that the problem in Northern Ireland was one between the two communities - only those in the middle of the conflict recognised that it was a struggle for supremacy between the occupying British state and the nationalist community - except we now have the earnest New Labour government apparently caught in the middle. This was clear when recent events culminated in the unveiling of Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's blueprint for a political settlement. Hailed as the 'the most significant breakthrough in eighteen months', the new document outlined a constitutional framework for British-Irish relations, indicating that the Irish government would reconsider its constitutional claim over the Six Counties and that the British government would amend the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The document was widely interpreted as an attempt to appease both sides in Northern Ireland - in other words, to keep both sets of quarrelling children happy.

John Mullin at the Guardian described the new document as a 'two-headed cow, like the Push-Me-Pull-You beast in Dr Dolittle'. Although republicans have complained that the new document is pro-Unionist, this is now government policy in Northern Ireland - to make sure everything pleases both nationalists and Unionists. Some may consider this a positive approach and a welcome change from Britain's Irish policy of the past which blatantly favoured one community over the other - but the new 'Push-Me-Pull-You' approach is insulting. It assumes that the two communities are the root cause of the problem in Northern Ireland and that it is up to the likes of Mo Mowlam to mediate between them and decide what is best. The sooner the people of Northern Ireland assert themselves as the adults they are rather than the children New Labour considers them to be, the better.

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