GLOSSARY / So who's not surrendering to whom?

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POLITICIANS don't always choose their words carefully, but Sir Patrick Mayhew did when he made his remarks about 'surrender' the other day. His speech showed that even when all the parties to a dispute speak the same language, interpreters may still be needed. Whether he chose his words wisely is another matter, but he can't have been in any doubt about what hotly disputed verbal territory1 he was treading on.

Sir Patrick was very careful, for instance, to make sure that the word first appeared in his speech in the phrase 'no surrender', a Loyalist slogan that some authorities trace back as far as the 1689 siege of Derry. Alan Bleasdale used the same phrase as the title of a 1985 film, the plot of which concerned the double-booking of a Liverpool social club by Protestant and Catholic parties. The effect of the film, a black and bleak farce, was to rewrite the proud defiance of the title as lunatic intransigence2 .

Sir Patrick does not seem to have intended any irony, however - he was, in effect, waving the Union flag to reassure an unseen audience 3,000 miles over his shoulder. (Churchill, too, knew the potency of combining the word with a resounding negative - the cadences3 of the 'we shall fight them on the beaches' speech end with 'we shall never surrender', the 'never' pronounced like a thrilling drum roll. It is a piece of rhetoric that depends on a long succession of positive statements being summed up by one short negative.)

I doubt that Sir Patrick's lip-service will have done him much good, because his very next sentence - in which he said that it was not necessary for the IRA to surrender to take part in the peace process - will be taken as a capitulation by most Loyalist observers. The linguistic philosophers among them - Dr Paisley, say - will recognise this as a 'performative statement', in which the utterance is more important than the content (saying 'I do' in a marriage ceremony is the usual example of a performative statement).

Things get a little complicated here. Sir Patrick has to say 'No surrender' for the sake of his Unionist listeners, meaning 'we won't give the bastards an inch', and then, literally in the next breath, has to say 'No surrender' to the IRA, meaning something like 'we promise not to crow if you renounce violence, and we're sorry if we suggested you were bastards'.

In part, his speech is just a statement of the obvious - unconditional surrender can be forced only on those you have militarily defeated and that clearly is not the case with the IRA. Besides, surrender demands an acceptance of defeat by the other party; it derives from the Old French sur rendre, to yield, and has always been associated with a humbling acknowledgement of higher authority, whether you are a bankrupt surrendering yourself before the court, an official surrendering your letters patent or a soldier raising the white flag above a beleaguered garrison.

These associations of resignation, abandonment and submission are where the problem lies. The OED defines the general sense of surrender as 'to give up something out of one's own possession or power into that of another who has or asserts a claim to it'.

For the moment the Government wants the IRA to surrender its assumed prerogative to blow human beings to pieces in pursuit of a political goal. But if the Government is to achieve that, the IRA must pretend that it is something else altogether, must effectively rule the name out in a way that is undeniable at a later stage.

The Protestant slogan and Churchill's speech show how abhorrent is the idea of capitulation to those who have invested combat with moral qualities. Sexual partners and religious writers can use surrender in a positive way, but not those who think of themselves as soldiers, which is why Sir Patrick has offered to strike it from the contract. It hardly seems likely that terminology alone will break the impasse but what an irony it would be if 'No surrender', a chant of besieged defiance for centuries, proved a means for opening a door to the enemy.

1 From the Latin territorium, land around a town.

2 Los intransigentes, a party of the extreme left in the Spanish Cortes. From the Latin transigere, to come to an understanding.

3 From the Latin cadere, to fall. Thus cadenza.