Gunmen have been allowed to dictate the terms of peace

I was looking at a tortured soul when she announced that the ceasefire was holding
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IT IS not a nice thing to see a soul in torment. Particularly when the person you are watching is one of the most decent and effective politicians this country has seen in a long time. I am talking about Mo Mowlam, the tireless advocate of peace in Ulster. But I believe I was looking at a tortured soul when she stood before the cameras the other day to announce that the IRA ceasefire was holding. Mind you she had been effectively pre-empted by the Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews who, a few days previously, offered his view that the killing machine was dormant. Privately though, I would like to know what she feels about it all. The words of the poet Paul Durcan came to mind as he ruefully considered the politics of blood in Ulster: "the politics of the last atrocity / the atrocity of the last politics".

It is useful to remind ourselves of what it was that presented Mo Mowlam with her impossible choice. The IRA killed a man called Charles Bennett. Charles "Chucky" Bennett was a catholic and he drove a taxi for a living. The IRA put three bullets into the back of his head. We are told he was killed as a result of an internal IRA disciplinary matter. Because of this, it is argued, the ceasefire was not broken. Had the Provos put the same three bullets into a soldier or a policeman then they would have been judged to be in breach of the terms of the ceasefire and sanctions imposed on the republican movement. So let's be absolutely clear. What our Government is in effect saying is that the life of a catholic taxi driver is worth less than that of a British soldier or a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - the Provos are free to kill their own.

There are legal responsibilities which surround the killing of Mr Bennett and these are the remit of the police and the courts. But the moral responsibility of a government to protect its citizens - whoever they are - has been abandoned in this case.

A correspondent to the letters pages of this newspaper some weeks ago took me to task for accusing the IRA of killing Charles Bennett: the simple fact he ignores is that it has never denied the murder. In the language which the Government was subsequently to accept and use itself, the IRA simply stated that the killing did not constitute a breach of the ceasefire. My correspondent pointed out that the three men accused of the last ceasefire murder were subsequently released. What he fails to note is that they were released after a fair trial in open court. That is something the IRA has never allowed the victims of its secret police-style executions. Why is it that so many of those on the left who rightly condemned the brutality of the Pinochets and the Contras and apartheid South Africa find themselves unable to recognise a similar evil when it is practised on their own doorstep? Where exactly on the map does our commitment to liberalism and human rights end?

As for the Tory rightwing ... Lord deliver us from their shallow opportunism. The Tory press has reacted with incontinent outrage to the Mowlam decision. And the Conservatives have been roused from their lamentable apathy over Ulster to demand an end to prisoner releases. The party's Northern Ireland spokesman Andrew Mackay is one of the least impressive front benchers in living memory: if he truly is the best that William Hague can come up with then the Tories are in a worse state than anybody imagined. I rather suspect that Mr Mackay has survived because the Conservatives have ceased to care about the Irish question. With the notable exception of Michael Ancram - who has served his time in the province and is demonstrably concerned with what happens there - the Tories have abandoned the pitch. The rightwingers do emerge periodically to condemn the Government for being too soft on the Provos and then totter back to the pavilion, a bunch of blustering old majors, to quote Shakespeare's words "full of sound and fury but signifying nothing". But then the rightwingers of the Tory party have never liked the peace process; they are still intellectually enfeebled by the conviction that all that is needed is tough law and order to sort out the IRA. But the Conservatives were not always so one dimensional.

Remember that it was Margaret Thatcher who signed the Anglo Irish Agreement, John Major who signed the Downing Street Declaration. Both agreements represented critical steps forward in the move towards a peace settlement. The Tory right believed both agreements represented a betrayal and it is they who now dictate what passes for the party's Ulster policy. And what about the Liberal Democrats? I doubt too many readers would be able to name the Lib Dem's Northern Ireland spokesman without resorting to a reference book. But there is a deeper problem here: it is not just the Opposition which is detached from Ireland. The majority of the British public is bored rigid with Ulster. It wants the bother sorted, the whining voices quieted. The protagonists in Ulster know this. Both sides heard a British Prime Minister (John Major) say that Britain had no selfish or strategic interest in holding on to the province. And this assertion about a place described by his predecessor as being as "British as Finchley".

Which brings me back to Charles Bennett and Mo Mowlam and the IRA ceasefire. The Tory press may condemn the Secretary of State's decision but the British people as a whole will support her. This is not - in national terms - a politically dangerous moment for the Blair government. Crudely put, the killing of Mr Bennett counts for little set against arguments about education and social services and crime. It is a killing like hundreds carried out by the IRA and the loyalists since the Troubles began. But I believe that Mo Mowlam is a Brit who cares about what happens in Ireland. Her vision is not confined to how things will play in the morning papers or on the television news. She can see beyond Downing Street and Stormont to the back alleys of east and west Belfast where the republican and loyalist paramilitaries continue to rule by fear.

Mo Mowlam is the first Northern Ireland secretary I can remember who actually fought to stay in the job. It is hard to believe that she was motivated by personal ambition or lust for power; there are much easier places to pursue these than in the grim corridors of Stormont. And so how does a truly committed politician deal with the moral crisis which the killing of Charles Bennett represents? I can't believe she likes having to turn her face against the evidence of murder and accept the IRA's Jesuitical definition of a ceasefire. The implication is that Mo Mowlam has gone against her instincts for justice in order to protect the greater good, namely a peace process which depends for its success on the support of the IRA and the protestant paramilitaries. Only a fool would argue that peace can be achieved without the active support of the paramilitaries, much less the eventual inclusion of Sinn Fein in government. But in the past few days we have seen a government that is hostage to the Provos, which has allowed the gunmen to dictate the terms of peace. It does not diminish my support for an inclusive peace process or reduce my admiration for Mo Mowlam. But it doesn't half leave a rotten taste in the mouth.

The writer is a Special Correspondent with the BBC

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