The end of a beautiful friendship

John Hume's bitter attack on Sinn Fein may force the IRA to think again, says David McKittrick
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John Hume's assault on Sinn Fein in yesterday's Irish News was plainly occasioned by the general election, in which his party will be pitched into fierce battle with Sinn Fein, but it also poses profound questions about the peace process.

The SDLP leader's criticisms, and indeed condemnation, of the republican movement was expressed in forceful terms, declaring that any election deal with Sinn Fein without an IRA ceasefire amounted to "asking our voters to support the killing of innocent human beings". This language came as something of a surprise to many, given that for most of the 1990s Hume has preferred to engage with Sinn Fein through private dialogue rather than public denunciation. But it remains a deeper surprise that the John Hume - Gerry Adams relationship ever blossomed in the first place, given the fact that the two men are direct rivals for the leadership of Northern Irish nationalism. That relationship has troubled and disconcerted many, particularly in the SDLP.

It resulted in an unprecedented political paradox. On the one hand, the two leaders developed a personal bond deep enough to create the peace process and at many points rescue it from collapse. On the other, their two parties remained not only separate but actively hostile to each other.

This antagonism is underpinned and explained by centuries of tradition. There are two almost completely distinct traditions within Irish nationalism: the first, the physical force republicanism of Tone, Emmet, the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and latterly the IRA; the second, the constitutional nationalism of Grattan, O'Connell, Parnell, Redmond and now Hume.

The picture is not quite so straightforward in the south, where parties founded by the revolutionaries of 1916 and the early 1920s have evolved from the "slightly constitutional" into strong opponents of violence.

But in the north, Sinn Fein has always been a bitter opponent of the SDLP and its precursor, the old Nationalist party. Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein are nationalist parties but, as throughout history, their relationship is one of institutionalised hatred. The constitutionalists believe the IRA besmirches a noble cause with violence, while the republicans accuse the SDLP of preventing the formation of a united anti-British front.

A voting pact between the two sides could produce seven or even eight nationalist wins in the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies. But the philosophical divisions between them have run so deep for so long that such a deal is unthinkable without a well-established IRA ceasefire.

The Hume-Adams relationship, therefore, pretty much flies in the face of Irish history. It is also a source of much confusion at election times.

But all along the existence of Hume-Adams has not prevented inter-party clashes at lower levels. An SDLP councillor, in a complaint echoed by John Hume yesterday, has accused Sinn Fein of still being involved in the ancient art of vote-stealing. The allegation is that some among the impressive retinue of bodyguards who surround Gerry Adams are so convinced of the merits of democracy that they had hoped to vote more than once.

Even a few votes can be vital, since this election is more than usually important in the eternal SDLP-Sinn Fein battle. Sinn Fein's vote in last May's forum election was a record 15.5 per cent, while the SDLP's dipped to 21 per cent.

In the coming election most believe Adams, aided by boundary changes, will win West Belfast back from Hume's colleague Joe Hendron. There is also a chance of Martin McGuinness winning in Mid-Ulster. Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats at Westminster, but even so the election would be seen as a triumph for the republicans.

That record Sinn Fein vote came about because many who do not normally vote for the party lent their votes to the republicans on the theory that a vote for Adams was the best way of encouraging a new IRA ceasefire. The tactic did not work.

It is unclear whether a further republican electoral triumph would make another IRA ceasefire more or less likely. Most nationalists believe Adams and McGuinness want a ceasefire, but there is a widespread suspicion, and indeed fear, that their stock has fallen sharply within the republican movement.

A Dublin source summed it up: "One thing that is getting more and more pronounced is a worry that these guys really are hostage to a few troglodytes." Adams himself seemed to signal that the militarists were in control when he admitted last month, "The genie in many ways is back out of the bottle."

Looking beyond its election aspect, Hume's new outspokenness reflects some of that suspicion, in that it amounts to a public questioning of the ability of Adams and McGuinness to shepherd away from terrorism what one observer described as the slowest ships in the republican convoy.

The IRA has seemed to take for granted that it can kill people with political impunity on this side of the general election. Its expectation appears to be that the next British government would, firstly, be impressed by such killings and, secondly, have no option but to engage with republicans again, no matter how much blood had been spilt.

IRA leaders may also have taken for granted that Hume, whatever the provocation, would oblige them by once again acting as facilitator in new negotiations. He has now planted the thought that they cannot automatically rely on his good offices.

The IRA has almost certainly not comprehended the extent to which its continuing violence may poison the well with an incoming Labour administration, inhibiting what will in any event be a nervous and preoccupied government. It has not, in other words, realised that phases of politics cannot be alternated with phases of violence. Hume's intervention may go some way to shaking their deadly complacency.