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25 January 1996

Ireland: an election without democracy

In the wake of the Mitchell commission report on decommissioning arms, John Major has proposed an election to a peace forum in the six counties of northern Ireland. But as James Heartfield explains the election is neither about real democracy, nor peace, but rather the reinforcing of British rule.

American senator George Mitchell released his report on the decommissioning of 'terrorist' weapons in Northern Ireland yesterday morning, 24 January. The report was a blow to the authority of the British prime minister John Major because Mitchell concluded that all-party talks could go ahead 'before' the surrender of arms held by the paramilitaries - principally the IRA.

The British Prime Minister had insisted that Sinn Fein could not participate in talks about the future of the province while their military wing still held arms. But now the Americans are challenging Major's authority by endorsing Sinn Fein's refusal to decommission arms ahead of talks. It was because the Americans had used their authority to undermine the British condition on talks that Major launched his new initiative of elections.

Nationalists in the six counties, however, would be wrong to think that the Mitchell Commission report helped them in any way. Mitchell's masters in the White House might have enjoyed wrong-footing the British, but in no way do they want to see nationalists take control of their own lives. The Mitchell report was in keeping with the way that the so-called 'peace process' continually pushes ordinary people out of the political debate.

If Mitchell has his way, the militant wing of northern nationalism - Sinn Fein - will be further committed to trashing the demand for national independence in favour of a British and American solution. Hanging on to their guns would only be a sentimental act for the IRA under Mitchell's proposals, since the republican movement would already be fully committed to the outcome of talks.

John Major's proposal of an election is a panic measure. He knows that to concede to Mitchell would be too humiliating, since by implication he would be conceding to Sinn Fein. Instead he has latched upon a plan favoured by the Unionists for an elected forum to discuss the peace process. The conditions set on the forum make it a trap for nationalists. The remit of the body is nothing to do with democracy and solely about reaching a negotiated solution. Even to stand, candidates would have to accept that they were bound by six conditions - including disarmament and accepting the outcome as binding. In effect taking part would mean accepting Britain's right to impose a solution on Northern Ireland.

Major's proposals, though, are already in trouble. The moderate nationalists of the SDLP and the government of the Irish republic have already voiced their doubt about a solution that comes exclusively from the Unionist side. The danger for nationalists is that having invested so much hope in the role of Britain as the arbiter of the peace, they will be seen as the opponents of democratic choice. By down-grading the democratic demand for independence in favour of a British solution, Sinn Fein is left pleading with Britain to resolve the problem.
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