When I first met Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison in February 1983 they made clear to me then that Sinn Fein accepted there could never be a military solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, that they wanted a negotiated settlement that would be acceptable to the Unionists and a united modern European state in which Unionists would wish to play a full and equal part.
It was always clear to those of us who began the dialogue with the present leadership of Sinn Fein that far from conforming to their depiction by the British government as 'godfathers of crime' and 'cold-blooded psychopaths' in fact they represented Britain's best chance of a negotiated settlement.
Unfortunately, the combined obduracy of Margaret Thatcher and Unionist MPs delayed peace by a decade and both James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley will undoubtedly continue this line. Fortunately, Unionist leaders constantly bellowing 'no surrender' have so alienated British and US public opinion that a space has opened up through which courageous and inclusive leadership can begin the task of answering the fears of ordinary Unionists about their place in Ireland's future.
Anyone who had doubts about the quality or intentions of Unionist MPs only had to observe their response to the exposure of continuing anti-Catholic discrimination in last month's Independent to realise that the Unionist leadership has no desire to create the conditions for peaceful progress. Even 25 years of horror has not shaken their desire to recreate the old Stormont with its anti-Catholic discrimination fully intact.
It has not escaped public notice that over the last three years the loyalist paramilitaries have overtaken the IRA as the principal purveyors of death.
The developments in South Africa and the Middle East have created a belief that similar progress can be made in Northern Ireland. But the one glaring difference is the absence of a Unionist leader with the stature and imagination of De Klerk or Rabin: someone who is prepared to take the risk of honestly telling their constituents that history has moved on to a degree which makes change both inevitable and welcome. In the absence of such a person emerging it will fall to Albert Reynolds, John Hume and John Major to reach past the Unionist leadership and appeal directly to the Unionist majority.
What they must say has been obvious for a decade.
1. All the backward and sectarian cliches of the southern Irish constitution must be replaced by a modern European constitution and a bill of rights. A good place to start would be by adapting the German constitution.
2. They must spell out to Unionists that they, and all Ireland, will benefit economically from an end to conflict and partition. A vast programme of investment must be mobilised in order to give peace a chance of taking hold. This will require the financial backing of the Clinton administration and the European Commission.
3. Disarmament by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries must go hand in hand with the scaling down of Britain's military presence. Simply to focus on disarming the IRA will not work. Loyalist paramilitaries are awash with hardware, much of which was smuggled into their hands by the British Army's undercover agent Brian Nelson (who is serving a prison term for his activities).
4. Those employed in the security services must be guaranteed new employment, to reduce the potential and excuse for loyalists in the security services sabotaging the peace process, as the French army sought to do in Algeria.
5. The IRA ceasefire allows us to draw a line across the bloody legacy of Anglo-Irish history. All sides are guilty of horrendous acts of violence, and debates about who is the guiltiest make no useful contribution to Ireland's future.
6. Ireland must move towards unification as a modern nation in a wider European Union. This process will take time and require the consent of all Ireland's people. No one will be allowed a veto and those who continue to resort to violence will not be allowed to derail the process. Fortunately the links between the security forces and the loyalist paramilitaries have given the British Army detailed intelligence which will be crucial in crushing any loyalist sabotage of the peace process.
History will judge those who go looking for excuses to reject the IRA's gesture rather than build on it. If the Irish and British governments firmly spell out an agenda similar to that above it will slowly but surely get a positive response from ordinary Unionists. Eventually the Unionist leadership will have to respond or it will be replaced by a new generation.
The 1975 IRA-Wilson government ceasefire, we now know, was destroyed by disloyal individuals in MI5 who collaborated with hardline loyalist paramilitaries in an escalating series of murders culminating in the attack on the Miami Showband. It has taken a generation to get back to where we were in 1975. We must not let anyone wreck this latest chance.
The writer is Labour MP for Brent East.
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