This is a more important development than it may at first appear. The ban on such broadcasts is as old as the Irish State itself. It has existed in substance for 72 years under a variety of administrative conventions and statutory provisions.
It was maintained because Sinn Fein was recognised as the political instrument of an armed conspiracy. Sinn Fein-IRA - one organisation with two aspects - denies the legitimacy of the state to whose broadcasting system it now has access. It also claims the right to wage war against Britain. Previous Irish governments saw that if Sinn Fein-IRA were to gain access to the national broadcasting system, it would use that access in furtherance of those ends. Which it is now about to do, courtesy of Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring.
This denial of access was not because of what Sinn Fein might say. Everyone knew what they would say. They say it all the time in the print media (abundantly, in this halcyon period opened up for them with the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December last.) It is not a question of what they say; it is a question of what they are. They are part of an armed conspiracy. They are not part of the democratic system. The access they have obtained accepts them for what they are not. The terrorists have a toe in the door of Irish democracy. We shall soon find them in the living room, if we are not a lot more careful.
This week's historic decision is part of the Hume-Adams process, as a result of which Provisional Sinn Fein - and through it its masters, the Provisional IRA - is acquiring a degree of perceived legitimacy never before accorded to it. Gerry Adams had assured John Hume that the IRA, being 'war- weary', would agree to a permanent cessation of violence, if only the British would save its face by agreeing to a form of words involving some recognition, however guarded, of 'Ireland's right to self-determination'.
Mr Hume managed to sell that one to Mr Reynolds and Mr Spring. The British government went along, and the blessed formula was incorporated in the Downing Street Declaration. Sinn Fein-IRA saw this as the clearest sign yet that the Brits will pull out, given a few more shoves. The IRA, casting aside its successfully simulated war-weariness, has kept on with its campaign.
The ever hopeful Mr Hume then put out the word to the ever-gullible government in Dublin that the peace process, despite all appearances, was still on: what was needed was to strengthen Sinn Fein's hand, in what were vaguely understood to be peace negotiations with the IRA in the field. With a few more clarifications and concessions we could still win through to the condition to which the Declaration aspired: 'a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence'.
'We can still get there' ran, and runs, the seductive message. 'With patience and a conciliatory approach to the legitimate demands of the Republican movement, peace is still within our grasp. A timely concession, right now, would do wonders. How about abolishing the outmoded and counterproductive censorship that keeps Sinn Fein out of RTE?'
This week, Mr Reynolds took that significant step down Sinn Fein-IRA's garden path, arm-in-arm with Mr Adams and Mr Hume.
Public opinion in the Republic has been ambivalent about this major concession being made while the IRA's 'armed struggle' continues. There have been significant negative reactions. Some commentators are beginning to notice that something rather peculiar is going on, under cover of the once-hailed Downing Street Declaration. There have been strong and forthright protests and warnings in the editorial columns of the Irish Independent, Ireland's largest circulation daily. In an attempt to allay this public concern, RTE put out a statement showing that, under a statutory provision still in force, Sinn Fein spokespersons will not be allowed to 'incite to violence'. Mr Adams must have permitted himself one of his wolfish grins when he heard that one.
For of course, the best contribution that Sinn Fein can make to the IRA's war effort is to talk about peace. Their spokespersons will do so, at length and earnestly, through RTE: peace, and the obstacles in the way of Sinn Fein's unremitting and dedicated efforts to secure the same. In his long-awaited first appearance, Mr Adams will develop, for the home audience, the theme to which he alluded in his press conference reported on the BBC this week: it is the British government which is standing in the way of peace, by its refusal to concede the clarifications that Sinn Fein needs, in order to convince the IRA in the field at least to scale down its armed struggle. If John Major denies the clarifications that are needed, then the responsibility for continuing violence rests with Mr Major.
That message may not appear plausible to many in Britain (except perhaps in the Labour Party). But it will strike a responsive note among quite a few people in Ireland. Since he is able to deliver it over RTE as a result of an unprecedented move on the part of the government, his message acquires a new semi-official status. While preserving unbroken its link with the IRA, Sinn Fein is fast becoming respectable in the Republic, and can be counted on to do its best to make the IRA respectable as well. The IRA has always had some sneaking sympathisers in the Republic, at every level of society. They can now creep out to bask in the sun of the Hume-Adams peace process, still in progress.
Sinn Fein-IRA will skilfully exploit Sinn Fein's newfound respectability and access for the benefit of the IRA's war effort. The Gardai know this and have warned the government, in vain, against giving Sinn Fein access to broadcasting. Sinn Fein, having gained that toe-hold, will now seek to ensure that the Gardai are restrained from interfering with the IRA in the Republic. Sinn Fein did that with some success in 1969-70, during the murky transactions that led to the 1970 arms trials.
They will now try again, under more propitious general conditions. They will put across the message, for example, that searches for arms would endanger the success of delicate negotiations on which the peace process depends. In short, they will seek to establish a climate of collusion between the Irish state and the IRA. They have already made some progress in that direction.
The main effect of the Downing Street Declaration, however, is to convince the IRA that they are winning, and that the Brits are about to pull out. I wish I could be altogether sure that the IRA are wrong about that.
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