Propaganda and hysteria still overwhelm debate about the IRA

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The Independent Online

Perhaps you, like me, have a sense of deja vu as we witness the recycling of 20-year-old stories about my views on Ireland. That the Labour Party press machine - and Frank Dobson's campaign team - have seized on the issue is a backward development in British politics.

It is little more than a recycling of the strident and dishonest distortions of the Tory press of decades ago, which themselves held back the debate on Ireland and assisted Margaret Thatcher's dreadful policy. It seems all the more ludicrous in a modern setting, when people like Gerry Adams are now regular visitors to Downing Street or the Northern Ireland Office.

It is worth recalling how far we have come in the debate on Ireland. Twenty years ago it was impossible to advocate negotiating a peace rather than waging an unwinnable war without being denounced as pro-IRA.

Many innocent people - such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven - were in jail as a result of a repressive application of anti-terrorist legislation, which was itself a product of the war in Ireland. And many innocent people in the Irish community here consequently experienced unacceptable levels of harassment and the fear that they too might be victimised. Stereotypical and racist jokes about Irish people were part of mainstream comedy programmes, and some cartoonists portrayed Irish people as a race of ignorant, warring psychopaths.

It was into this territory that many of us stepped when we argued that a military solution was not possible to the war in Ireland and that the participants had political motives which meant that a political solution was therefore necessary. We also - myself included - argued that Britain must face up to its historical role in Ireland as a colonial power.

This is the backdrop to the hysteria that was unleashed against me and many others in the Labour Party at the time. It is important to remember what the row was really about. Margaret Thatcher's strategy was clear, tragically wrong, and maximised the loss of life on all sides. She believed that if the IRA could be completely isolated and depicted simply as psychopaths and godfathers of crime they would eventually be defeated. But army intelligence and MI6 analysis always warned her that there could be no military victory over the IRA and that there would eventually have to be a negotiated settlement. Margaret Thatcher's refusal to accept this fact meant that it was not until she was removed from the political scene and John Major came to power that any serious dialogue could get under way.

In any debate about Ireland the problem is that there has been so much distorting propaganda for so long that it is often harder to get to the truth about this war than most others. I still vividly remember a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1987 where one Labour MP passionately declaimed that Britain had sent troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 to "stop IRA violence and they will have to stay until we have finished the job". The fact that British troops were sent in to stabilise Northern Ireland as it descended into Protestant-led violence against Catholic areas was neatly forgotten. Propaganda has continued to overwhelm facts.

In my view, the current stage of the peace process now faces all the parties with crucial choices. The fact that the rejectionist wing of Unionism has not been effectively faced down has left the process in a precarious state. All efforts should now go in to resolving that problem.

The rejectionists have made IRA decommissioning an issue in order to re-establish the Unionist veto. The Good Friday Agreement is clear and precise on the issue of decommissioning. It was not a precondition before the establishment of a power-sharing executive. When Mo Mowlam and Tony Blair brokered the deal at Easter 1998, the timetable was for the establishment of a power-sharing executive by late summer followed by the removal of all guns from Irish politics during the subsequent two years.

David Trimble has equivocated and fudged in order to keep his narrow majority among the Unionist members of the Assembly. The immediate result was the formation of the power-sharing executive was delayed for over a year while Trimble struggled to continue riding the Unionist tiger.

This was Trimble's fatal mistake. He needed to strike fast while the glow of the huge majority vote for peace in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was still warm. If he had pushed through the establishment of the executive then I am certain that by now much of the IRA arsenal would have been destroyed.

By allowing his rejectionist minority to delay the establishment of the executive, Trimble has given his hardliners time to rally their forces and strengthen their position.

The subsequent suspension of the institutions by the Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, in flagrant breach of the letter of the Agreement, and against the advice of the Irish government and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, gave a clear signal to Martin Smyth and company that they were getting their way. Last weekend's deeply damaging blow to David Trimble's authority was the inevitable outcome. Having made decommissioning a precondition for inclusive government, the Ulster Unionist Party now want to extend this to include retention of the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Now David Trimble faces an even bigger gamble than his decision to back the Good Friday Agreement. He must appeal over the heads of the hardliners directly to Unionist voters and ask for them to send him a majority committed to the peace process. With every month he delays, his enemies will strengthen their position.

To the outside world, Trimble's party is a bizarre sight. Grey haired and balding white men still proclaiming no surrender while the world moves on around them. It's tempting to say we can allow time to take its course as, overwhelmingly, Trimble's critics are of a generation that will soon pass from the political scene.

But Ireland cannot afford to wait. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson need to construct the framework from which there can be a new direct appeal to the Unionist community through the ballot box.