Mark Steel: Is Martin McGuinness addicted to secret talks?

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The Independent Online

One of the most romantic attempts to solve the chaos in Iraq is this session of secret talks that's been revealed, chaired by Martin McGuinness in Finland, and attended by Ulster Unionists, South African ANC members and Iraqi Sunnis and Shias.

One possible reason for them is that following all those years in secret talks as one of the leaders of Sinn Fein, McGuinness has simply become addicted to secret talks. Perhaps he does this all the time, so when an issue pops up about the drainage system in Antrim, he says: "This calls for secret talks between me and the water board, in a log cabin on Mount Fuji."

But there's a danger it could be counterproductive, because McGuinness and the Unionists might say to the Iraqis: "Your main problem is you've been at it for only four years, you need another 26, at least. So we've set out a schedule – in a couple of years, one lot needs to kidnap a horse, then have a hunger strike, then there needs to be a period when Al-Sadr is only allowed on television if his words are read out by an actor – we can provide him, the poor bloke's been out of work since 1996, then there's a ceasefire, some dodgy marches, one side has to bury its guns, then you all drink tea together, laughing in a hotel in 2033."

And there must have been a danger that McGuinness would come over all nostalgic. To modern paramilitaries he'd probably sound like an old man, grumbling: "You're spoilt, you Iraqi insurgents, with your armoured cars and suicide bombers. We had to make do with fertiliser bombs, made them ourselves we did. Ooh, the love and care that went into them. And look at you all, running around in bandannas. I was 14 before I was allowed my first balaclava, even then I had to knit my own."

And the Ulster Unionist contribution to the problem was probably to insist Iraq become part of the United Kingdom.

Another problem involves the way these talks have been presented. It suggests the root of these conflicts is that two clans just can't get on, as if it's a grand version of ITV's Neighbours From Hell. So in Northern Ireland the Protestants would scream: "Oi, turn them bloody catechisms down! It's sanctus this and domini that – you can't hear yourself think."

Then the Catholics would yell over the fence: "We're trying to transubstantiate and all we can hear is you working all the time." But this ignores the outside power that created the divisions in the first place.

There's a myth developing about the British role in Northern Ireland, that it involved forcing these two uppity tribes to get along, as if the army was the military wing of Relate. Which ignores how the British agreed to create a "Protestant land for a Protestant people", and created special laws, police forces and voting systems to ensure this happened. And didn't even say to the Catholics: "Describe to me your feelings when you were burned out of your homes – was there a sense in which you felt unloved?"

Even more strangely, there appears to be no mention of the American occupation in the statements about the secret talks in Finland. Perhaps this is part of the secrecy, and they think if they're quiet enough, no one will notice the Americans are there. But they are there, and they've passed a series of laws to privatise the entire country, including the oil, handing most of it to American companies. So the issue that most clearly unites Sunnis and Shias is a desire to take those resources back for Iraqis.

This means it's not in the interests of the occupation for Sunnis and Shias to unite in any meaningful way, which is why the occupying forces are arming different gangs in different areas, to secure the loyalty of one or other faction. But the way these talks are presented helps to create a similar myth to the one in Northern Ireland, that the Americans are trying their best but these crazy Muslims insist on attacking each other.

The British army is portrayed as having had an even more cuddly role in Basra, as if they've been a team of little Bob the Builders, saying: "Goodness me, we don't know anything about old Mister Bush's project for an American century, we're just trying to get on and build a lovely adventure playground for all the children, aren't we, Dizzy?"

If the secret talks addressed none of these issues, they were probably just an excuse to go to Finland. Or maybe Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists are working together so closely they've seen an opportunity, and have said to the Sunnis and Shias: "Right, we've got 5,000 flutes,10,000 bowler hats, 200 unemployed mural painters and 3,000 songs. We've no use for them any more, but you'll need that just to get started if you're going to have a civil war. Half a million and you can take the lot."

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