Nationalists remain split over bullet or the ballot box: Northern Ireland holds local elections today. David McKittrick talks to two key strategists and candidates for Derry City Council

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The Independent Online
IF PAST patterns are any guide, about seven in ten of the nationalist voters who go to the polls today will cast their votes for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, while three in ten will support Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing.

This division between political nationalism and militant republicanism has echoed through Irish history. The perennial question is whether Irish nationalists should pursue their aims through politics or by force.

As the voting figures show, most Catholics and nationalists prefer the political way. But those 30 per cent who support Sinn Fein - who amount to 10 per cent of the total vote - constitute a pool of support which has enabled the IRA to maintain its campaign of violence for more than two decades.

The authorities concede that the IRA will not be defeated by military means alone. The question then arises of whether, in a changing world, Sinn Fein, and the IRA, might at some point come to believe that terrorism is no longer necessary, or productive.

The interviews (right) represent a distillation of hours of separate conversations with Mark Durkan and Mitchel McLaughlin, who are important strategists within, respectively, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. They seek to highlight the points of agreement and disagreement between the two parties.

Unsurprisingly, they differed most sharply on the issue of IRA violence. Mr McLaughlin argued that it was the dynamic which had brought about change, while Mr Durkan's view was that IRA bombs were counter-productive, distracting the British and alienating the Irish Republic from the north.

They thought alike, however, in their analysis of how Britain today viewed Ireland. Both said that Britain's traditional defence and economic arguments have gone and Mr McLaughlin attributed the continuing British presence to 'inertia'.

Mr Durkan found it difficult to imagine a British government laying itself open to charges of giving into terrorism and abandoning the Unionists, and could not imagine Britain withdrawing in the absence of agreement. The result, he felt, would be more violence and turmoil.

Mr McLaughlin accepted that more violence could follow. But he believed that many Unionists would talk rather than fight and believed any Protestant backlash would, after some initial bloodletting, fizzle out.

Both men projected a sense that their approaches were bearing fruit, and that Britain now held the ambition to disengage from Northern Ireland. Mr Durkan saw this as a gradual process which was dependent on the development of agreement between the various interest groups, since withdrawal without consensus would lead to worse violence.

Mr McLaughlin, on the other hand, envisaged a sudden jackpot win for the republican cause with a British administration, perhaps in five years, contacting the IRA to arrange withdrawal terms.

Any British government contemplating such a course would wish to be reasonably certain that it would leave behind a stable situation. Mr McLaughlin was able to offer little assurance, however, that this would be the case, and to show how it might be effected with little risk of conflagration.

At the same time, the extent of the change in the republican analysis of Britain is striking: imperialism and colonialism have turned into non- malevolent inertia.

Given this new analysis, the question for the republicans is whether a continuation of violence, or a switch to political activity, is the better way of moving British policy in the direction they desire.