Northern Ireland: Why the South changed tune: A dramatic week in Dublin gives new life to Hume-Adams

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, nationalists in Northern Ireland told the Irish government quietly but firmly to reverse its approach to the Hume-Adams peace talks.

The discussions between John Hume, the SDLP leader, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein held promise, it was told. By the end of the week Dublin was moving, in an undignified and even slightly panic-stricken fashion, towards a more favourable view of the talks. The net result is that there, at least, the apparently dying Hume-Adams initiative has been given a new lease of life.

Whether or not it will be revived in London is a more problematic question, but in the coming weeks the British government must expect steadily increasing pressure not to throw the initiative into the bin.

Last week's message to Dublin came primarily from northern nationalists, a highly politicised group which took great offence at what has been described as Dublin's 'hamfisted and hurtful' response to Hume-Adams. The result was to send a tidal wave of northern bitterness sweeping south.

Mr Hume had invested enormous political capital, and in effect his personal reputation, in the highly controversial move of talking to Gerry Adams. Against all odds, he emerged from the enterprise saying he believed that there was the best hope of peace for 20 years.

Dublin's apparent brush-off produced particular rage because Mr Hume's supporters regard the SDLP as not just another political party. Its leaders see themselves as a party that has stood out for the democratic processes in a land where three in 10 nationalists cast their votes for Sinn Fein.

The SDLP, which takes 70 per cent of the nationalist vote, believes the South of Ireland owes it a great deal since it acts as a bulwark for the Republic against the terrorists and their sympathisers. It argues it has held the line against Sinn Fein and the IRA and has produced, in John Hume, Ireland's most creative political figure.

Last week, party members watched on television the sight of the SDLP leader weeping in a Derry graveyard. He had been approached by the daughter of a man who had just been shot dead by loyalists. She told him: 'Mr Hume, we've just buried my father, he died in the shooting on Saturday. My family wants you to know that when we said the rosary around my daddy's coffin we prayed for you, for what you're trying to do to bring peace.' Mr Hume nodded, shook her hands, turned away and broke down in tears.

SDLP members and others are daily confronted with the reality that republicans are a fact of life in Northern Ireland. The IRA exists, it kills people, and 10 per cent of the electorate consistently vote for its political wing. Since the republican community has withstood, for a full quarter of a century, all the efforts of the authorities to defeat its campaign of terrorism, the SDLP has concluded that the only chance of stopping it seems to lie in the Hume-Adams dialogue. It is admittedly a faint hope, but it is seen as the only hope available.

Even in her grief, the woman in the graveyard was expressing a deeply held northern nationalist view: that if the British Army, the RUC, MI5, MI6 et al cannot end the violence, then John Hume should be given the chance to try.

Few northerners were particularly surprised when John Major rejected Hume-Adams: the outrage came when the Irish government followed suit, the Irish foreign minister Dick Spring suggesting coolly that Mr Hume should step aside and allow the two governments to get on with the real business.

A Belfast solicitor said: 'Sure we expected Major to do what he did, to humiliate Hume like that. It was the sight of our own in Dublin doing it too that got me so angry.' The most common comment was that Mr Spring and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds had 'hung Hume out to dry'. The flood of protest that has hit Dublin came mostly from the North, but it has come from other influential directions too.

It was an almost unprecedented breach in Dublin-SDLP relations, which have been among Ireland's most carefully tended relationships, characterised by a close sense of partnership and identity of interest. The way that breach is being mended is assuming the importance of a moment of definition in Irish nationalism.

In the past few years Mr Spring has had two major triumphs. First his nominee, Mary Robinson, swept to victory in the presidential election, then he led his Irish Labour Party into coalition government with its highest-ever vote. There were clear signs of the emergence of a strong new modernising, secularist, feminist element in Irish politics.

One huge question posed by the development was how this new element would relate to the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland. Mr Spring began his tenure as foreign affairs minister, which gave him responsibility for both the North and Anglo-Irish relations, with gestures towards northern Unionists.

He thus gave the impression of moving away from the traditional southern view of northern nationalists as 'our people up there'.

In the new scheme of things, Mr Spring seemed to be moving into a new post-nationalist, or even anti-nationalist, phase. Mr Hume was to be relegated from his pivotal position as Dublin's key northern ally; Unionists and nationalists would now be dealt with on an equal basis.

Mr Spring's problem, as he learnt with a shock last week, is that Ireland showed itself unready for any such new approach. All the evidence is that the old Ireland, which is still out there, heartily approves of John Hume and his initiative. So, it seems, does much of the new Ireland: university students at a debating society in Dublin recently gave Mr Hume not one but two standing ovations. The same students initially extended a warm welcome to a Unionist spokesman, but were clearly disappointed in his speech. There is in the South a considerable reservoir of goodwill towards Unionists, but also a feeling that northern Protestants have yet to respond to gestures of friendship.

Mr Spring's problem was that he combined his apparent rejection of Hume-Adams with a new olive branch to Unionists. This increased the northern nationalists' sense of abandonment, for their belief is that Unionists will not reciprocate to concessions.

One of the fascinating points of the week was that Mr Hume, though clearly angry, did not publicly voice any sense of betrayal of Hume-Adams, opting instead to make his feelings known at a private meeting with Mr Spring and Mr Reynolds. The wave that hit Dublin was all the more effective for being clearly unorganised and spontaneous.

All the signs are now that a major adjustment of Irish government policy is under way. A sudden public volte-face and a ringing endorsement of Hume- Adams would present presentational difficulties, but the concept of this kind of initiative has taken root. John Hume was one of the leaders of the old Ireland: it has now been conclusively established that he is one of the leaders of the new Ireland as well.

Having taken less than a week to begin the business of turning around the Irish government, Mr Hume's next focus of attention will be London, where he will try to reverse Mr Major's rejection of his initiative. The Prime Minister had a number of obvious reasons for turning it down in the first place: no government wants to receive pieces of paper with Gerry Adams's fingerprints on it. A warm welcome for such an initiative could easily spark off even greater loyalist violence.

And any form of welcome could well break up the Conservative Party's increasingly close relationship with Ulster Unionist MPs.

Mr Hume clearly hopes to counter these forces with pressures of his own. One would be a united Irish nationalist front, with the Irish government endorsing his approach. His other tactic has been to appeal to the court of public opinion, repeatedly going on television to say that a chance for peace exists. He has plainly intrigued Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman as to what he has up his sleeve; presumably many of the viewers want to know too.

The problem for Mr Major, in countering these pressures, is that he has implied that an alternative peace process exists. If it does, no one in Northern Ireland knows about it.

If he means the old inter- party talks process, he faces the major stumbling-block that nobody, with the possible exception of Sir Patrick Mayhew, believes in it. Over a period of years, increasingly disillusioned party delegations dragged themselves to Stormont for talks which the community in general now regards as futile.

In the first place, the Rev Ian Paisley has made it abundantly clear that he will not be at any new talks. The same may well be true of James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionists, who have laid down several difficult pre-conditions. And Mr Hume can hardly be expected to show enthusiasm for what he clearly regards as, in present circumstances, an inconsequential waste of time.

The second point is that there have been no moves that make success likelier next time round. In Northern Ireland, waves of violence tend not to make finding agreement any easier: rather, they increase divisions and tensions, and lead to more pressure on the politicians not to compromise.

The third point is that inter- party talks are just that: political talks, not peace talks. Even in the unlikely event that agreement did emerge, IRA and thus loyalist violence would continue.

The apparent absence of a realistic alternative to Hume- Adams will be one of Mr Hume's strongest cards in the political manoeuvring ahead.

But in an important sense the SDLP leader has already changed the agenda, for there is really no market now for the idea of attempting to make tiny incremental advances.

Whatever the merits of Hume-Adams, there has been a shift in the discourse of Northern Ireland towards the idea that talks should not be about political minutiae but should be on a grand scale, concerned with the biggest issue of all: that of a peace settlement.

(Photograph omitted)