Desperation of a deadly 'peace'

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THIS week in Belfast, the IRA admitted responsibility for an attack on an RUC Land Rover which was patrolling the Shankill Road area during the funerals of two loyalists killed last week by nationalist gunfire. About the same time as the Shankill incident, gunmen belonging to the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force opened fire on a group of Catholics who were watching the Ireland-Italy football match on television in a pub in Loughinisland, Co Down. Six of the Catholics were killed.

The Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993 was intended and expected to lead to a cessation of IRA violence. But six months later, IRA violence continues much as before. The effect of the declaration was, meanwhile, to enrage the Unionist community, and stimulate loyalist paramilitaries into greater activity. The total level of violence is now higher: Northern Ireland is in a state of incipient civil war. The 'peace process', which is supposed to quench the flames, is pouring petrol on them.

In its psychological effects on the two communities in Northern Ireland, the 'peace process' works like this: the two communities are not in disagreement as to their understanding of how the peace process is working. Both sides see the British government as making concessions to nationalists out of anxiety to be rid of the problem, and in the hope of buying off the IRA. But their feelings about this are radically different: nationalists are encouraged, and Unionists alarmed. And both the encouragement and the alarm have the effect of stimulating the extremists in both communities.

In an interview in Boston on Monday, the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, announced that he is seeking a form of Anglo-Irish cross-border authority 'with executive powers'. This means that the nationalist demand is being stepped up, from the 'consultative status' accorded to Dublin in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to a share for Dublin in the actual governance of Northern Ireland.

Almost incredibly, this provocative statement was made on the same day that the news had broken of the massacre in Loughinisland. Mr Reynolds and his colleagues seem to have no idea of the kind of impact that their words and actions are making inside Northern Ireland, especially in the Protestant community. And Mr Major and his colleagues also seem either not to know or not to care what effect their trafficking with Dublin is having in the same quarter. Neither government appears yet to see the need for much more drastic security measures, applied evenhandedly against both sets of paramilitary godfathers. Internment is not ruled out, but neither is it yet being seriously considered.

Mr Reynolds's apparent bid for a share in the governance of Northern Ireland should not be taken literally. I don't believe Dublin really wants anything of the kind. To share responsibility with Britain for the governing of Northern Ireland would be very onerous indeed for any Dublin government. It would mean having to carry responsibility, before the Catholic electorate of the Twenty-six Counties, for the actions of security forces (however composed in Northern Ireland). Those actions could well be seriously inconvenient to the Catholic population in Northern Ireland and, therefore, unpopular in the Republic. Consultative status is vastly more comfortable, and it is most improbable that Mr Reynolds has any real yearning to proceed beyond that point. I think the real reason for the ostensible bid for constitutional limits with 'executive powers' was to fend off change rather than bring it about. Mr Reynolds, it seems, is under pressure from Downing Street to consent to the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution, the Articles that lay claim, by implication, to Northern Ireland as part of 'the national territory' of the Irish State. Mr Reynolds does not want to do this, because it would be unpopular with important elements in his own Fianna Fail party. It might even result in a challenge to his own leadership of his party, something more vivid in his mind than the dimly conceived reactions of people living in Northern Ireland (and not voting in the Republic).

Albert Reynolds does not seriously propose to put the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 to a referendum. But neither does he want to irritate the British by a point-blank refusal. So he makes a counter-proposition which he knows the British are unlikely to accept and which, if they did, would be even more obnoxious to the Unionists than the mere retention of Articles 2 and 3. So he makes the counter-proposition: 'We'll drop Articles 2 and 3 if you give us a share in the government of Northern Ireland.' That should hold Mr Major for the moment.

Mr Reynolds is primarily concerned with the internal politics of his side of the Border. The trouble is that the repercussions of that kind of politicking on the other side are becoming far more dangerous than the present Dublin government seems capable of imagining. Already the nationalist point-scoring that has become intrinsic to the 'peace process' is costing more and more lives inside Northern Ireland. But things could get far worse, and quickly.

Mr Reynolds may not be too worried about destabilising Northern Ireland. He may even be gratified, as a politician, by the political brownie- points his tactics are earning him from the most benighted of his own backbenchers. But he should bethink himself that a destabilised Northern Ireland could speedily destabilise the Republic, too. Driving a community to desperation is a dangerous business, and Ulster Protestants have now been driven far down that road. Further attempted progress down the nationalist agenda could be fatal.

I don't think John Major is likely to make much further progress. The results of the Downing Street Declaration have hardly been encouraging for him and the parliamentary arithmetic is against further concessions. But a future Labour government would be under pressure to show itself even nicer to Irish nationalists than the Tories have been. In that connection, the sort of thing Mr Reynolds was talking about this week - joint administration - could well be attempted. If it were, it would precipitate a revolt among Ulster Protestants. British troops would be under fire from both sides, and British withdrawal would follow. The consequences of that would be shattering, for the North and the Republic.

In the Republic, there are already some signs that people sense the danger. The leader of Fine Gael, John Bruton, has been courageously warning against the dangers of the present course, and is beginning to attract significant support. I am all for the opposition, in the Republic. But I live in mortal fear of a victory by the Opposition in Britain, and its probable consequences for Ireland.

(Photograph omitted)