No way back now for the IRA or the Unionists

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The Independent Online

When I heard that Cyril Ramaphosa had been chosen as an overseer of the IRA arms deal, my mind went back to an afternoon in the early Nineties in an embattled South African township.

I had been following Ramaphosa and another group of ANC leaders around Kathlehong, where they were visiting people who'd been driven from their homes by supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party. We were half way through the visit when shots rang out. A sniper had spotted Ramaphosa and his colleagues and decided to open up from his vantage point in a water tower. We scattered for cover. A colleague of mine took a round in the chest and was dead a few minutes later. Ramaphosa's aides wanted to rush him out of the area, but he refused to panic. He was cool and collected and left when he had finished meeting the victims of the recent violence. The next day he was back on the phone negotiating a political settlement with the leaders of the men who had tried to kill him.

In those days Cyril was the former union leader who was about to be elected general secretary of the African National Congress. He was polite and soft spoken, intellectually gifted and - when he needed to be - as tough as old boots. But his greatest achievement was to recognise when compromise was essential. Mr Ramaphosa is now a wealthy and respected businessman. Many believe he will be a future president of South Africa. He is urbane and charming, and I can't think of a better man to despatch to Ulster.

The question of whether Mr Ramaphosa will be coming to Belfast now hinges on two issues: whether the Ulster Unionist Party intends to accept the redefined idea of decommissioning, and whether it is going to use objections to the renaming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as a reason to stay out of the power-sharing government.

If Cyril himself were leading the Unionist negotiators, he would doubtless advise them to take the deal as the best on offer. The South African and the Ulster peace processes are both triumphs of political pragmatism over deeply held principle. Where the ANC offered "sunset clauses" guaranteeing minority political power (albeit short-term) in return for a swift transition to democracy, the Unionists and the IRA also came to the threshold of real peace through difficult compromises.

The IRA's decision to open its arms dumps to outsiders is a revolutionary step. This was not an ace which the IRA had been holding up its sleeve, but a profoundly difficult concession only extracted through the skill and determination of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Refusing to recognise the historical significance of the republican concession will not lead to a new armed conflict, but it will seriously marginalise the moderates in the leadership.

Though we are well accustomed to hearing the leaders of all sides in Ulster declare that they have "gone as far as they can", I think this is definitely the case with the IRA. I was amazed to hear that they'd moved as far as independent verification. Is it a definite guarantee that they won't take up arms again? Of course not. The only guarantee of that is a functioning power-sharing government at Stormont. But my instinct is that the "war" has burned itself out.

Though there are hard-liners on the IRA army council, there is no appetite for renewed violence among grassroots republicans. The same goes for the loyalist paramilitaries.

However, underlying tensions and hatreds remain. And without a political process and some shared form of responsibility-taking, the long-term future can only be further conflict. It may not take the form of the slaughter of the past 30 years, but the frustration will find an outlet. Which leaves us with the Unionists' objections to changing the name of the RUC and the flying of the Union flag over public buildings. Republicans who jump to criticise the Unionists for their attachment to such symbolism would do well to remember that their forefathers fought in a civil war over matters of symbolism, not least the taking of an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

There are a great many Unionists who genuinely feel that interfering with these symbols is a dilution of the Britishness of Ulster. There is another group of hardliners who would seize any opportunity not to go into government with nationalists. What both elements need to recognise is that the majority of people in Ulster want: devolved government now. The compromise proposed by Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, essentially involves leaving the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the legislation, but allowing it to lapse in practice. As for the flags issue, it is hard to see a workable outcome. Of course all sides could agree to suspend consideration of the issue until next year. That would take us through the flag-mad marching season into a cooler political climate. Mightn't everybody be able to take a wiser view after six or more months of devolved government?

There is at the heart of every Unionist's mind the not unreasonable suspicion that Irish nationalism is slowly gaining through politics what it could not achieve by war. Nationalist Ireland is confident and well led. When it offers concessions there isn't the hint of duress. And in the background, throughout this long and hard political struggle are the words of John Major, a British prime minister who told the people of Ulster that his government had no strategic or selfish interest in keeping the province within the UK. That extraordinary declaration sharpened the pathological insecurity of Unionists.

Mr Trimble is the first Unionist leader to recognise the deeper shifts in national consciousness taking place across the UK. He is not blind to how the sense of belonging felt by people in Scotland, Wales and England is changing. What does it mean to be "British" when the very idea of "Britishness" is being eroded by devolution and regionalism?

And it goes deeper for Unionists. What does it mean to be a Unionist when the siege that defined your identity is coming to an end? It means you are plunged into a cathartic process of self-definition. David Trimble is at the heart of this. He has had the courage to lead his people into unfamiliar territory. And he has the intellectual breadth to start redefining Unionism - seeking to break free of the party's relationship with the Orange Order is part of this.

His party must support him. It needs to find a way to accept the Mandelson compromise on the RUC and to fudge the flags question. Mandelson has achieved a substantial victory in the past three weeks, and it has come about at least in part through toughness. By holding the line on decommissioning he helped push the IRA towards its concession on arms verification.

He was fortunate in that the target of his pressure wanted to see devolved government reinstituted at Stormont. The difficulty with many of the Unionist hardliners is that they have no such desire. As so often in the past few years it comes down to David Trimble's ability to carry his people with him. If a majority refuse to back a return to power-sharing on the terms being offered by the Government, they will be judged as wreckers. And in the long, long term, that can only do irreparable damage to the Unionist cause they believe in.

The final part of Fergal Keane's series 'Forgotten Britain' is broadcast on Monday on BBC1. His new book 'A Stranger's Eye' is published by Viking

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