'Memories ignite as easily as houses'

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The Independent Online
You don't need to be a householder in Northern Ireland, of either the nationalist minority or the unionist majority (and remember, the unionists see themselves as a minority in Ireland) to be aware of the acute danger that lies in wait. This danger is that the fine words of the joint Downing Street Declaration of 1993, about overcoming the legacy of history, may be going up in flames too.

At any minute, the old burnt-out landscape of 1914, 1922 and 1969 may be with us again. The real fear is that no action will be taken to prevent it. For the most alarming feature of all in this situation has been the rift appearing between the British and Irish governments - the only two forces able to contain the catastrophe.

Fortunately, there is every sign that they have scared themselves, and that, by letting verbal bygones be bygones, they will continue to refuse to accept that there is no more to be done. However bleak the situation may be, to accept (as was sometimes the case in the past 25 years) that there was no further positive way to go, is an abandonment of the human spirit.

But while they continue to try and try again - which is the only hope - it is worth being clear about exactly what went wrong.

Sir Hugh Annesley's decision to allow the march to go ahead after all was so inevitably disastrous that it still seems unbelievable he could have taken it. The reaction of the nationalist minority to an RUC turn- about which involved not just giving in to Orangemen but beating up the inevitable and relatively peaceable nationalist protest, was itself inevitable.

Memories in Northern Ireland ignite as readily as the houses. The Orangemen may have been thinking about the Boyne and Portadown in 1642, but the nationalists were taken straight back to 1969, when the RUC was beating up protesters.

And what is it that makes this memory particularly dangerous? This was the moment that enabled a virtually decomposing IRA, whose pursuit of the republican Holy Grail "betrayed in 1921" no longer seemed of any reality to most nationalists, to assume credibility again by attaching their principle to the defence of that nationalist minority.

But apart from Annesley's decision, what brought about the even more dangerous trouble between the two governments? The British Government and Annesley must certainly be believed when they say that ministers played no part in the decision. It was understandable that John Bruton and Dick Spring should presume that this had been so, but mistaken to say so publicly.

Major's and Mayhew's argument that no democratic police force operating within the law should be under Governmental control is faultless. Their appalling mistake was, so often and so publicly, to support the decision to let the march go ahead. Let them now get on with Bruton and Spring in rescuing the future from the flames.

Robert Kee is a historian and broadcaster

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