Irish despair at British cowardice

Caving in to the Unionists has prejudiced peace plans, says Garret FitzGerald
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The Independent Online
No one in Britain should misinterpret the Irish government's strong reaction to Thursday's decision to allow an Orange march through Garvaghy Road, a Catholic area of Portadown, County Armagh. This reaction is not an atavistic nationalist response to the fact that the Unionists eventually triumphed, it is a reaction based on what seems to me to be a sharp difference between Irish and British political attitudes to violence and threats of violence.

For more than 50 years, Irish governments of all complexions have taken the view that the security of the state requires that violence be resisted and faced down; that intimidation and threats must never be rewarded; and, in a related policy area, that the state should never negotiate with terrorists unless and until they propose to bring their violence to an end.

Decade after decade, successive Irish governments have watched with incredulity as one British government after another keeps alive bitterness and bigotry in Northern Ireland by caving in to threats, violence and intimidation. I might also add that they encouraged the IRA throughout much of the Seventies to continue their violence by negotiating with them in the absence of any commitment to end their terror campaign.

Let me justify these statements.

Contact with the IRA was ruled out by successive Irish governments throughout the Seventies and Eighties. The IRA and the Sinn Fein spokesmen were banned from radio and television. Special non-jury courts that could not be intimidated were used to try terrorist suspects. And hunger strike demands were resisted with a consistency that ensured that such strikes were always abandoned without loss of life.

We in Ireland believe that these tactics, together with the encouragement that the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave to Northern nationalists to support constitutional politics rather than IRA terrorism, made a major contribution to the IRA's decision two years ago in favour of a ceasefire that would permit peace negotiations to take place.

By contrast, throughout the Seventies we were deeply depressed - indeed at times infuriated - by the encouragement that the IRA received from successive British governments, who kept alive IRA hopes of a British withdrawal through their persistent political and official contacts with that organisation at a time when the IRA were clearly not ready to abandon their campaign.

Thus in 1971, Harold Wilson, then Opposition leader, came to Dublin, ostensibly to meet the Irish government and opposition. In fact, he came to meet IRA leaders behind our backs at a time when Irish policemen were being murdered by terrorists. A year later, William Whitelaw gave the IRA leadership further encouragement by inviting them to London for talks.

Three years later, a Labour government authorised talks with Sinn Fein, while at the same time their Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, was refusing month after month to meet the democratically elected government of our state.

Such was our concern, and indeed alarm, about those secret discussions and about the duplicity of the British government in what they told us about those talks, that as Foreign Minister I felt it necessary to inform the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, of the dangers that this British government collaboration with the IRA might pose for the security of the Irish state, and indeed for the whole of Ireland.

Again, in 1981, when representatives of the Irish Catholic hierarchy had negotiated with IRA prisoners to end their hunger strike without conceding IRA demands, that settlement was sabotaged by a direct approach to the IRA from London. This cut right across what had been worked out with the British representatives in Belfast, and as a result the hunger strikes continued, more prisoners died, and the IRA received a huge boost in support, which lasted for a number of years.

The other side of this coin is the manner in which successive British governments have repeatedly caved in to Unionist pressure or intimidation. This process started in 1922. Then, in the face of threats of resignation by the Unionist Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, the British government both backed off the establishment of an inquiry into the pogrom that had cost the lives of 380 Catholics and dropped its objections to the abolition of proportional representation for local elections.

As one historian has written of these two climbdowns: "It was to be almost 50 years before the British government made any serious attempt to intervene with the Ulster government on behalf of the Catholic minority. By then it was too late." The roots of the subsequent explosion of nationalist discontent in 1968-1970 had been well planted.

In 1974, a British Labour government caved into the loyalist workers' strike, allowing the power-sharing executive established by the Sunningdale Agreement to founder. They thus opened the way to a further 22 years of unrest and inter-community violence.

Yesterday's decision to cave in once again to Unionist violence opens up the prospect of a further indefinite period of unrest, and seriously prejudices the already delicate process of peace negotiations.

The excuse given by the Secretary of State that the reversal of the RUC's decision was justified by a change in the "balance" of the situation was a polite way of saying that whoever poses the biggest threat will be allowed to win. It is difficult to conceive of a more dangerous overt encouragement to the IRA to resume their campaign of terror. It is impossible to believe that in Britain itself the threat of mob violence would have been allowed to prevail in similar circumstances.

I cannot help wondering how Sir Patrick Mayhew expects the nationalist population of the North to react to his BBC TV comment on Thursday that Cardinal Daly should reflect on the consequences for the Catholic population of Portadown if the march had not been allowed through. Such a public declaration of the inability - or unwillingness - of a sovereign government to protect its citizens from mob violence is surely unprecedented in a modern European democracy.

It is not easy for a government by a single act to abdicate its own moral authority, undermine confidence in the police, insult church leaders of four principal faiths, and boost the acceptability of a terrorist organisation. But last Thursday, a British government managed at one fell swoop to do all four.

Just what the consequences of this may be it is impossible to tell. But when a government abandons the rule of law in favour of the rule of the mob, one must be very fearful of the long-term consequences.

Dr Fitzgerald is a former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland and was an architect of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

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