There are estimated to be over 40 million Americans of Irish or (in most cases) partly Irish origin. Of these, rather more than half are descended from Irish Protestants. But very few of these think of themselves as Irish. Being white, Protestant, and English-speaking, they were eligible to join the long-dominant WASP club in American society and they duly joined it. They stressed their Protestantism to the exclusion of their Irishness, for the simple reason that Protestantism was advantageous in America, Irishness disadvantageous. Irishness was especially disadvantageous from the midnineteenth century on, when it came to mean “famine Irish.” So in America, as in other parts of the English-speaking world, Irish came to mean Catholic Irish, exclusively.
Of the 20 million or so Catholics who are of Irish or partly Irish (and often mainly Irish) descent, most are no more than vaguely and intermittently aware of the Ireland of today. Few are actively sympathetic to the IRA. But many are conditioned, by the Irish Catholic folk-memory, to believe a large part of the IRA’s case, whenever they happen to think of it. They can readily believe that anything bad that happens in Ireland is caused by the British. And they are conditioned not to believe that the reason why Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom is that this is what a majority of the population of Northern Ireland want.
The more sophisticated, among those who take much interest in these matters, know the politically correct Irish-nationalist answer: Northern Ireland is an artificially created entity (unlike the island of Ireland) and therefore has no right to exist. The less sophisticated (among those who know the facts of the matter) have a less complicated and more honest answer: that the people who want to remain part of the United Kingdom are Protestants, descended from settlers, and so have no right to be in any part of Ireland in the first place. A white American might find that argument a bit incongruous, coming from people who are themselves descendants of settlers. And as it happens, the ancestors of the Ulster Protestants settled in Eastern Ulster at about the same time as the first whites settled in North America.
Other nationalist interpretations of Northern Ireland are available. Near the beginning of the present troubles, in the early Seventies, I heard the New York lawyer Paul O’Dwyer offer one such, in a radio interview. He had been going on, at first, in an accustomed vein: that all the deaths in and around Northern Ireland, including those inflicted by the IRA, are “caused by British imperialism.” Then his interviewer’s line of questioning led him to break some new ground. “What,” the interviewer wanted to know, “about the Ulster Protestants?” “What about them?” said Paul. “The Ulster Protestants are fine, hard-working people who can make a great contribution to a united Ireland.” “Why aren’t they making it, then?” the interviewer wanted to know. O’Dwyer’s answer was: “The British won’t let them.” Paul O’Dwyer is an intelligent, well-informed man, and he knew that statement to be untrue. But he also knew that many of his listeners were so poorly informed about Ireland that they might believe what he said. And what fervent nationalist, of any nation, would refuse to tell at a thumping lie, in the good cause, if there was even an outside chance that somebody out there might be fool enough to believe it?
The actual news from modern Ireland finds it impossible to pass through the grid of the Irish American folk-memory, to reach modern Americans of Irish descent. Certain events that occurred in Ireland in late March of this year stuck in that grid and caused pain to some Irish Americans. The New York Times carried a report of these events, dated March 28, under the headline: “20,000 Rally in Dublin for Peace in North and Against I.R.A. Killing.” The report datelined Dublin and signed James F. Clarity opened as follows:
An estimated 20,000 Irish men and women rallied today in favor of peace in Northern Ireland and against the Irish Republican Army, whose bombs eight days ago in Warrington, England, killed two children.
Since Monday, throngs have come to downtown Dublin to sign condolence books and leave gifts of teddy bears and bouquets in memory of the two boys, 3-year-old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry. The successive demonstrations, including the one today, have been the largest and most intense public expression of anger at the I.R.A. and of demands that politicians work harder for a peaceful settlement of the Protestant-Roman Catholic conflict that has killed 3,053 people since 1969.
The events faithfully chronicled by Mr. Clarity are of course exceedingly distasteful to fervent Irish nationalists. I can see vividly in my mind’s eye the scornful grimaces with which they hear of “condolence books…. teddy bears and bouquets,” all from Irish people, in tribute to a couple of British youngsters who happened to be killed in the course of an action undertaken by brave Irish patriots. The correct response of proper nationalists to Warrington is of course: “The two deaths are deplorable, but the IRA is not to blame for them. The boys, like all the other victims of the violence, are victims of British imperialism and the British occupation of Northern Ireland.”
Yet there is no doubt that the actual response of most Irish people to the deaths of the boys was not the “correct” one, but that described by Mr. Clarity. For Irish American nationalists, contemplating such developments, the lesson is that the Irish in Ireland have grown soft, and out of touch with their own history. And on April 5, a little more than a week after that report from Dublin, The New York Times carried an article which interpreted the events described in the report precisely along those lines. Whether or not the article was published in response to Irish American nationalist pressure I cannot say, but it was certainly satisfactory to that section of opinion.
The New York Times article was published under the headline “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” with the more pointed subheading “British policy sustains the cycle of terror.” The article was by Andrew O’Hehir, described as senior editor of San Francisco Weekly. At first sight it might not seem clear why The New York Times should turn to San Francisco for an authoritative interpretation of a report from Dublin. Yet there is a kind of logic in the choice. If the Irish living in Ireland are as dopey a lot as the author of “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” depicts them as being, then if you are in quest of clear Irish thinking, the further you can get from actual Ireland the better. Mr. O’Hehir, at a distance of six thousand miles from the scene is, on this reasoning, exceptionally qualified to interpret it. And he does so with confidence, and a spicy dash of radical chic:
The rally represented a repudiation of the shadowy organization that claims to represent the Irish soul, that proclaims its legacy of bloodshed and martyrdom to be entwined with the deepest Irish sense of self.
But the I.R.A.’s claim, I’m afraid, is not easily dismissed. The group is best understood as the product of two forces; centuries of British colonial oppression and Irish denial of the meaning of that experience.
Respectable Irish opinion has long opposed the I.R.A. campaign of violence aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland. However, the relationship between the Irish and the I.R.A. is a complicated psychological transaction that can’t be addressed by speeches or captured in opinion polls. Many who oppose I.R.A. terrorism privately admit to halfburied feelings of anti-British resentment and to a grudging admiration for the group’s resolute defiance.
In this light, the guerrillas’ brutal acts can be seen as the stirrings of a dark medieval unconsciousness behind the facade of contemporary respectability. As long as Ireland refuses to confront the post-colonial trauma that distorts virtually all aspects of its social, cultural and political life this dysfunctional pattern is unlikely to end.
This in-depth analysis contains no reference to the basic fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom because most of its citizens want it that way. O’Hehir ignores that, even when he is speculating about Britain’s reasons for remaining in Northern Ireland:
Rational British policy would dictate jettisoning Northern Ireland. But nations rarely act on a rational basis alone. Perhaps abandoning the final lump of empire is too bitter a pill for the British Establishment to swallow.
In reality, Northern Ireland is one “lump of empire” that the British establishment, and most British people, would happily do without, as indeed the present secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, acknowledged in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit. But it would be difficult, and without international precedent, to expel from the United Kingdom a million people who want to stay in it, and who are in a majority in the province they inhabit. O’Hehir never refers directly to the existence of the Ulster Protestants. Anyone who thinks of the British “occupation” of Northern Ireland as sustained by force alone would find nothing in “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” to disturb this illusion.
There is just one reference in the article, very near the end, to the sectarian-political divide which is at the heart of the violence in and around Northern Ireland. The reference is obscure and portentous, like much else in the article. It runs: “And Ireland must face its history of violence and victimhood if Catholic-Protestant peace is ever to be possible.” Immediately after providing that hasty and confused glimpse of the reality, O’Hehir goes happily back to his Britbashing theme, with this peroration: “But that process must not obscure a central fact: British policy created and feeds the cycle of hatred and killing in which the Irish and British remain trapped.”
When I read “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep,” I asked The New York Times, through my agent, to give me space for a reply. They told my agent that they were willing to publish an article by me about Northern Ireland, but stipulated that I was not to refer to Mr. O’Hehir’s article. This was no use to me, since what I wanted to do was to expose that specific and blatant exercise in disinformation. So I turned to The New York Review of Books. Hence the present article.
The thesis of “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep”—“British policy sustains the cycle of terror”—is untrue in the sense intended in the article. If Northern Ireland were to be expelled from the United Kingdom, and British troops withdrawn in consequence, the processes of “ethnic cleansing” already at work in Northern Ireland would speedily attain Bosnian proportions. The Protestant and unionist leaders would declare the independence of Northern Ireland and send their security forces into Catholic and nationalist areas to flush out the IRA, thus ending the “kid glove methods” and “no-go areas” for which Protestants at present denounce the British government.
From a Protestant point of view, the deployment of their forces in places like West Belfast would be a legitimate security exercise. But to Catholics, it would appear as an invasion of their home territory by their hereditary enemies, bent on genocide. There would be mass resistance which the Protestant security forces would try to quell by the uninhibited use of firepower. The Dublin government would be forced to react, and civil war would engulf the whole island. The death roll in the first week would exceed the total (a little more than 3,000) which the “cycle of terror” has exacted in more than twenty years. The British presence, far from “sustaining” the cycle of terror, has inhibited it from attaining its full and frightful potential. That would be demonstrated beyond doubt, at great cost to the whole people of Ireland, were the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland, as the “friends of Ireland” in America constantly urge them to do.
The British presence in Northern Ireland is indispensable, if general civil war is to be avoided. British policy on Northern Ireland is another matter. It is even questionable whether there is such a thing as British policy, in this particular context. But there is a fairly constant British pattern of behavior. That pattern is to stay in Northern Ireland, while giving the impression that they would like to get out of it, and will get out of it as soon as they can find a way of saving their face while doing so. And this pattern of behavior does indeed help to sustain the cycle of terror. It does so doubly by its effects on both communities, and specifically on both sets of paramilitaries.
As far as the IRA is concerned, it has received encouragement, from very early on, from both the major British political parties. The IRA offensive began in 1971. Harold Wilson, then leader of the opposition, met the IRA leaders secretly in Dublin in 1972. William Whitelaw, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in a Tory government, met the IRA leaders shortly afterward. Neither meeting led to any agreement. But for the IRA, the important thing was that these high-level encounters had happened. They were intoxicating demonstrations of the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun.
So far as is known, no member of a British government has actually met with the IRA leaders since the early 1970s. But indications of a British desire for disengagement have been frequent. Sir Patrick Mayhew’s recent interview with Die Zeit is not an isolated episode. Sir Patrick’s predecessor, Peter Brooke, had invoked a “Cyprus” analogy, implying that the British may decide to go and leave the natives to fight it out. Every such signal is a shot in the arm for the IRA. They are encouraged to believe that they will again meet with a British government representative, and this time to discuss the phasing of British withdrawal. Without that hope, inadvertently fostered by British politicians, the IRA could hardly have kept their “armed struggle” going for twentytwo years.
The same sorts of signals that raise hope on the side of the IRA engender fear of being abandoned among the Protestant community. And the fear, like the hope, finds expression in violence. The Protestant paramilitaries arose in response to the IRA campaign, but they have, until recently, been less active and less effective than the IRA. Traditionally the Protestant community supports the official security forces, to which many of its members belong, and this has tended to inhibit reliance on paramilitaries. But that inhibition is slackening, as more and more Protestants come to feel that Britain is abandoning them and that they must look to their own defense.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was a turning point in this connection. That agreement—which accorded to the government of the Republic consultative status in relation to Northern Ireland—was advertised at the time as an exercise in reconciling the two traditions. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is nothing of the kind. It is seen, in both communities, as a victory of Catholics over Protestants. Protestants in consequence see it as a betrayal by Britain. Years of Protestant agitation against the agreement had no effect, and the “talks on the future of Northern Ireland,” which Protestants (unrealistically) hoped might lead to the scrapping of the agreement, are deadlocked.
In these conditions, Protestants are increasingly pinning their hopes on their own paramilitary forces. The main paramilitary group—the Ulster Defense Association—underwent an overhaul at the beginning of the decade, replacing its old corrupt leadership with one better prepared for combat. The results are now clear. Last year—for the first time since the IRA offensive began more than twenty years ago—the number of Catholics murdered by Protestants exceeded that of Protestants murdered by Catholics. And that is still the pattern in the first half of the present year.
There is a tendency to classify murders of Catholics by Protestants as “sectarian” whereas murders of Protestants by the IRA are “political.” In reality the two sets of murders are both political and sectarian. Both sets of paramilitaries murder members of the other community at random. The objective, on the Catholic side, is to break the will of the Protestant community to remain in the United Kingdom. On the Protestant side the objective is to deter the Catholic community from harboring and helping the IRA.
One curious feature of the All-Ireland scene today is the apparent lack of emotional response, among the population of the Republic, to the developing Protestant offensive against the Catholics of Northern Ireland. The population of the Republic is 97 percent Catholic (but see below) and has traditionally aligned itself with the Catholics of Northern Ireland, often referred to by politicians as “our people in the North.” At certain times the sense of identification among the people of the Republic with the Catholics of Northern Ireland has come across as overwhelmingly strong. This was so at the time of the siege of the Bogside in Derry in August 1969. It was so again, and even more strongly at the time of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British soldiers shot thirteen unarmed Catholic rioters dead in Derry. And the sense of identification was still there, in the mid-Seventies, at the time of what were, up to last year, the last serious outbreaks of Protestant violence. But by 1993, this sense of identification seems to have dwindled almost to vanishing point, as a result of disgust with the IRA’s prolonged offensive, and all its untoward consequences.
Immediately after the Warrington bombings, and while the protests against them in Dublin were at their peak, loyalist, i.e., Protestant, paramilitaries murdered six Catholics (only one of whom was a known member of the IRA) in a place called Castlerock in Northern Ireland. Murders of Catholics by Protestants might have been expected to evoke strong reactions in the Republic, as they did in the past. But not any longer; not in 1993. After Castlerock, the protests over Warrington continued, and Castlerock was almost completely ignored. Nationalists in Northern Ireland were understandably outraged. The Southern Irish were identifying with the English rather than with their own brothers and sisters in the North.
I write a weekly column in the largest-circulating daily newspaper in Ireland, The Irish Independent. In that column I wrote about the Republic’s silence over Castlerock. I said that it was as if a great unspoken message was hovering in the air, addressed to the Catholics of Northern Ireland: “Ye brought it on yourselves.” None of my readers wrote to challenge that interpretation; everybody knows the truth of it. There was outrage over the killings in Warrington, because the victims were seen as totally innocent. Catholic victims in Northern Ireland are not so seen, because of relatively high levels of Northern Catholic support for those whose “armed struggle” included Warrington.
There is a marked difference, in this matter, between Catholics, north and south of the border. In the Republic, in the last general elections, Sinn Fein—the IRA’s political front—got less than 2 percent of the vote, and did not even come near to taking a seat in the Dail. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, Sinn Fein regularly gets about one third of the Catholic vote. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, was for years the elected (but abstentionist) member of the British Parliament for West Belfast. He lost his seat at the last Westminster elections, not because of any falling off in his Catholic support, but because his Protestant constituents were smart enough to vote for the constitutional Catholic candidate of the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP), whom they detested only slightly less than Gerry Adams. Adams, for his part, complained that his seat had been “stolen,” apparently on the grounds that Protestants ought not to have votes.
The disturbing size of that Sinn Fein vote is sometimes taken as exaggerating the strength of pro-IRA feeling. Catholic clergy, who condemn the IRA, and are worried for the reputation of their flock, tend to take this line. Actually, the size of the Sinn Fein vote understates the extent of IRA sympathies among the Catholics of Northern Ireland. There are plenty of discreet sympathizers with the IRA in the ranks of the SDLP. The SDLP leader, John Hume, is generally thought of by outsiders as hostile to the IRA. This is a simplification of a complex phenomenon. Mr. Hume does condemn “the men of violence” with considerable eloquence, on appropriate occasions. But he always stops well short of advising his followers to cooperate with the security forces, on a regular basis. He knows that his followers dislike the security forces and the Unionist population much more than they do the IRA—those of them, that is, who have any degree of dislike at all for the IRA. In fact, Mr. Hume’s followers help the IRA by refusing to cooperate with the security forces. In this way the IRA have the run of the Catholic areas, with the assent of the SDLP, as well as of their own unequivocal supporters. And that is how John Hume wants it to be.
I have been criticized in the past, in the Republic, for drawing attention to the equivocal nature of Mr. Hume’s position in relation to the IRA. But some of John Hume’s own actions in the spring of this year demonstrated that his relation to Sinn Fein-IRA is now even cozier than I had judged it to be in the past. In April, Mr. Hume held prolonged talks with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein and in that capacity chief apologist for the IRA and its “armed struggle.” Mr. Hume had talked with Mr. Adams before, about five years back, but this time there was something new. The leader of the SDLP and the leader of Sinn Fein actually issued a Joint Declaration, during the preparation for Northern Ireland’s local elections which took place in May—and did not show the hoped-for loss of support for the hard-liners, both Catholic and Protestant.
The Joint Declaration showed the SDLP and Sinn Fein as sharing one grand political objective: “national self-determination” for all Ireland. The Joint Declaration thus denies all legitimacy to Northern Ireland. Since one of the parties to the Joint Declaration—Mr. Adams—is publicly committed to the “armed struggle,” to attain that objective the signature of John Hume, as Gerry Adams’s partner, tends to legitimize the said armed struggle. Not a good augury for the success of the “talks on the future of Northern Ireland,” in which Mr. Hume is supposed to be seeking agreement with the Unionists. If he wishes to wreck all prospects of reaching such an agreement, then he found an ideal instrument for that purpose in the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration.
Mr. Hume’s admirers have always supposed that, in his talks with Mr. Adams, he has been seeking peace. But that hardly accounts for that Joint Declaration, issued while the armed struggle was still continuing. The population of the Republic was horrified by the Warrington bombings. But John Hume was not too horrified to sign a Joint Declaration along with the principal apologist for the organization which murdered those boys, as well as hundreds of others. And Mr. Hume’s followers, the rank-and-file of the SDLP, show no sign of being in the least worried by their leader’s act of solidarity with the leader of Sinn Fein.
The contrast between, on the one hand, the reaction of people in the Republic to the Warrington bombings and, on the other, the signing of a Joint Declaration associating the SDLP, through Sinn Fein, with the IRA, is a striking index of the gap that has developed between public opinion in the Republic and Catholic public opinion in Northern Ireland.
The public mood in the Republic at present is cool toward the Northern Catholics, and warm toward Britain. This is not as surprising as it may appear to some Irish Americans. The only major survey of attitudes carried out in Ireland—Father Micheal Mac-Greil’s Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland—has a table of Overall Social Distance Scores. “Social distance” is measured by responses to questions such as: “Would marry or welcome as member of my family“; “Would have as close friends.” Among nationalities “English” are tops in the popularity stakes, with 87.3 percent, “British” come next, with 82.4 percent. There “Northern Irish” with 77.5 percent “Nationalists N.I.” at 71.9 percent are considerably less popular than plain “Northern Irish.” Irish Americans will find it hard to credit that “Yanks” (sic) at 69.9 percent, are so far behind “English.” In San Francisco, no doubt all this will rate as evidence of “post-colonial trauma” and a discreditable failure to grapple with the same in the appropriate way, by hating the Brits.
Overall, what has been happening in our archipelago over the twenty-two years of the IRA’s “armed struggle” consists of the following broad trends. The British have been distancing themselves from the Protestants of Northern Ireland. The people of the Republic have been distancing themselves from the Catholics of Northern Ireland, and the people of the Republic are getting closer to the British. That last trend was appropriately symbolized by President Mary Robinson’s call on Queen Elizabeth II in May: the first meeting between the two heads of state since the office of president of Ireland was created in 1937. It is not in Mary Robinson’s power, as non-executive president, to issue a return invitation, but she expressed the hope that she might soon be in a position to receive the Queen in Ireland. Mary Robinson is prodigiously popular and none of this put the slightest dent in her popularity; on the contrary, it served to enhance it. She was loudly praised by virtually all sections of society and the mass media: the murmurs of dissent were few and forlorn.
Too much, however, should not be made of this. Everything that Mary Robinson has done since she became president has been popular, mainly because of her own immense personal appeal. Thus, when on a visit to West Belfast, she shook hands with Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Fein MP for the area, and in that capacity included in the group assembled to welcome her, with all of whom she shook hands in turn. That particular handshake cost her much of her surprisingly considerable popularity among Northern Unionists; but it did her no harm in the Republic, where most people regarded it as of no political significance. However that may be, the silent handshake en passant in a crowd certainly does not compare in political significance with the planned and deliberate conversation with Queen Elizabeth II.
On the whole nationalism in the Republic appears to be in relative decline. I suspect that the decline is associated with the more spectacular decline in the authority of Catholicism; specifically, in the authority of the Church over social and moral questions, particularly sexual questions. Against the known wishes of the whole Catholic hierarchy, the Irish Parliament, the Dail, at the end of May by a unanimous vote legalized the completely free sale of condoms, including sale by slot machine. One commentator, Bruce Arnold, hailed that vote as signaling the advent of “separation of Church and State.” He was not exaggerating.
Nationalism and Catholicism in Ireland have usually been depicted as in conflict. Sometimes they were, most notably in 1891, when, after Charles Parnell’s marriage to the divorced Katherine O’Shea, he was denounced by the Catholic hierarchy, and the Irish nationalists split into Parnellite’s and anti-Parnellites. But deep down nationalism and Catholicism were felt to be as one. It was not just that England had oppressed Ireland: Protestant England had oppressed Catholic Ireland. The Catholic schools emphasized the religious aspect, thus enlisting the force of nationalism in the service of the Church. Because of that association, the weakening of Catholicism weakens nationalism also. Catholic Ireland had good reason to hate Protestant England, and did so with a vengeance. But post-Catholic Ireland—now clearly beginning to emerge—has no reason to hate post-Protestant England. So that old hatchet can be buried, which is what the great majority in the Republic clearly want to do.
These trends create a window of opportunity over Northern Ireland if the government of the Republic has the sense and the nerve to see its chance and seize it. The opportunity is to break the logjam which is obstructing the “talks on the future of Northern Ireland” between the British and Irish governments and the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland: the two Unionist parties and the SDLP.
The logjam is over Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution: the articles which lay claim to Northern Ireland as part of the national territory of Ireland. The “reintegration of the national territory” referred to in Article 3 has been defined as “a constitutional imperative” by the Irish Supreme Court. The Unionists understandably refuse to reach agreement with Dublin until there is a commitment to amend those Articles which would have to be done by referendum. The Dublin government, so far, has refused to enter into any such commitment. So the only party to the talks which can now make the talks move toward agreement is the Irish government, by softening its position with regard to Articles 2 and 3.
It is clear that the people of the Republic are in no mood to refuse amendment of Articles 2 and 3, if that course is recommended to the people by the government. Something substituting “aspirations for an eventual unity of the people of Ireland” for the present naked irredentist territorial claim would be easily carried, and would be acceptable to Unionists.
So why don’t the leaders of the Irish government just go ahead, and move toward amendment of those articles? The answer is that they are afraid of John Hume, who wants those articles to stand, for the simple reason that the Unionists hate them so much. The national self-determination plank in the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration was intended (among other things) to copper-fasten those articles.
It is understandable that the Dublin government should be a bit afraid of John Hume. For two decades now, Mr. Hume has dominated the political thinking, over Northern Ireland, of all the successive Irish governments. He has been able to dominate because he was extremely popular in the Republic. People admired him as the peace-loving champion of the Catholics and believed him to be an enemy of the IRA. As long as that was so, to run foul of John Hume was to court political destruction; as I know from personal experience in 1972.
But that is not so; not any longer. Gerry Adams is detested by almost everybody in the Republic, and Mr. Hume’s penchant for hobnobbing with Mr. Adams has damaged his image. When I publicly attacked the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration (in The Irish Independent) there was no come back from Mr. Hume’s admirers in the Republic. Mr. Hume, personally, was constrained to reply: a sure sign that he is running out of friends in the Republic. (The Hume-Adams joint declaration is clearly a deliberate political act, and so seems, quite rightly, to be in all together different class from that Robinson-Adams handshake.)
If the government decides to move toward agreement with the Unionists, by a commitment to amend Articles 2 and 3, it can safely brave the wrath of John Hume. Such a move would suit the present mood in the Republic. John Hume’s reputation there would only suffer further, were he to oppose such a move, as he probably realizes by now. If the government were to make that move the talks would then be on course for a successful outcome. The outlines of that outcome are already clear: a large delegation of power to the representatives of both Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland to run a joint government—“devolved cross community government”—with the Anglo-Irish Agreement still in place, and with a Dublin commitment to move for the amendment of Articles 2 and 3. The Unionists want to get rid of the Anglo-Irish Agreement but they must know that that is not on the cards. The commitment to amend Articles 2 and 3 would remove from the agreement its most objectionable aspect in Unionist eyes: the fact that it is an agreement with a party that has a de jure claim to the territory of Northern Ireland. As for the SDLP, it doesn’t really want devolved government, in which it will be a junior partner. But if devolved cross-community government is being offered, the SDLP simply cannot refuse its share and leave the whole show to the Unionists.
So if the Irish government is prepared to take the plunge it can save the talks. A successful outcome to the talks would not be “the end of history” or even the end of the IRA. But it would strengthen the center in Northern Ireland against the two extremes, and would tend toward closer cooperation between Dublin and London, opening the way toward tougher security cooperation, against the paramilitary forces of both communities. So there is much to play for.
It seemed at one time that the present coalition government in Dublin might be genuinely anxious to secure an accord with the Unionists, something which would require a willingness to move on Articles II and III. By the end of July, those hopes had faded. Foreign Minister Dick Spring, in an interview with the Guardian, indicated that one of the options he is considering for Northern Ireland is Joint Administration by Britain and the Republic: a nationalistic notion tending in the opposite direction to repeal of Articles 2 and 3. The same idea had been put forward by Kevin McNamara, parliamentary spokesman for the British Labour Party on Northern Ireland. Joint Administration is basically John Hume’s idea—conceived as next step on the road to a United Ireland—and is consequently anathema to all Unionists. Any attempt to implement it would precipitate an insurrection in Northern Ireland east of the River Bamm: the Protestant heartland. But there is not going to be any attempt at Joint Administration, atleast during the lifetime of the present British Parliament. The talk about Joint Administration rebounded to the benefit of the British government and the Unionist parliamentary representation. Mr. Major wrote a letter, later published, rebuking Mr. McNamara for even considering Joint Administration, and urging Labour to “unambiguous acknowledgment of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.”
Because of that letter, and because of Labour’s flirtation with Joint Administration, William Molyneaux’s Official Unionists, who have been estranged from the Conservatives ever since the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 1985, voted in Parliament for the government in the crucial Maastricht “vote of confidence” in July. The Conservatives can almost certainly count on their continued support for the duration of the present Parliament. That increases the government’s parliamentary margin of safety by 50 percent, which will probably enable the present Parliament to last its term—with about three years to go—during which period the Conservatives can hope to recover from their present deep unpopularity.
It follows that the British government is unlikely, in the lifetime of the present Parliament, to do anything that will displease the Unionists. Since the Dublin government is unlikely to do anything that will attract the Unionists, the politics of the province are likely to remain in their characteristic condition of deadlock for the next few years at least.
It is to be hoped that, during this particular deadlock, the British government will begin to take its responsibilities for security more seriously, and with a greater sense of urgency. At present the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland are the prey, week by week, of two sets of political-sectarian terrorists: the IRA and the Loyalists paramilitaries—of whom the latter have been somewhat more aggressive for nearly the last two years.
It is now clear that such well-established and determined terrorist conspiracies cannot be defeated within the limits of normal legal process. There is a growing demand for selective internment, to be applied even-handedly to the godfathers of both communities. Rank-and-file members are sometimes arrested and convicted. Those who give the orders are seldom even charged, although they are known to the police. Since both communities are now suffering about equally from these regular terrorist atrocities, there would be a sigh of relief, from most ordinary people throughout Northern Ireland, if all the godfathers, of both lots, were put behind bars.
So far, the governments concerned have been putting the vain quest for a political solution first, hoping forlornly that the eventual success of this quest, if it ever happens, will lead to an improvement in security. It is time to reverse priorities and put security first. If both sets of terrorist leaders can be put out of business, politics could then have a chance. They don’t have one in the present atmosphere of terror and hysteria permeating both communities.
October 7, 1993