It's time for Mr Hume to go

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The Independent Online
THERE has been some good news from Ireland this week. I don't, of course, mean the IRA's announcement of a three-day, post-Easter ceasefire, with hints of an extension if the British government makes further concessions. I am referring to two developments indicating that some significant sections, both north and south of the border, are tired of the IRA and its accomplices and are willing to say so publicly.

About ceasefires, and related activities, at the Conference of the Association of Gardai Sergeants and Inspectors in Limerick this week, the association's president, Paddy O'Brien, said that a peace agreement in Northern Ireland should not include an amnesty for people convicted of murdering policemen, whether inside or outside the Irish state. This was an implicit declaration of continuing solidarity between the Gardai and the RUC in the fight against terrorism. This is directly contrary to the drift of the Hume-Adams approach, which has been dominant in the politics of the republic since the end of last year. Under Hume-Adams, you are not supposed to say anything that might upset the IRA for fear of 'disrupting the peace process'. Paddy O'Brien's breach of this taboo is much to be commended.

Mr O'Brien also insisted that in any final settlement, all guns and explosives must be handed in and must not remain 'out there to be used by future subversive or criminal groups'.

In this space last week, I referred to a danger that the Hume-Adams rot, which has gone so far in the politics of the republic, might come to affect the Gardai. The proceedings at that Limerick conference are heartening in that they demonstrate the existence, within the force, of a determination to resist any such tendencies.

In Northern Ireland this week, there were strong signs that not everybody in the SDLP is happy about Hume-Adams. Last week, John Fee, an SDLP councillor in Crossmaglen, was beaten up with hurley sticks, allegedly by local members of the IRA, for having condemned an IRA mortar attack on a helicopter flying over the area. As a result of the attack, Mr Fee was hospitalised with multiple injuries. On Saturday, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, in condemning the attack, put the blame for it squarely on the IRA, which he roundly denounced, describing it as the 'Ku Klux Klan of Northern Ireland'. He added another comparison. 'Those who carry out these attacks,' he said, 'are the storm troops operating underneath the umbrella of republican violence. Their role is to ensure that the community comes to heel, remains silent and places no obstacle in the way of their colleagues who are carrying out the more high-profile terrorist attacks.' Mr Mallon knows what he is talking about. He is MP for Newry and Armagh.

Gerry Adams, who has brazenly denied IRA responsibility for the attack, immediately denounced Mr Mallon's statement as 'despicable'. Given Mr Mallon's position as second to John Hume in the leadership of the SDLP, this exchange places the Hume-Adams alliance under considerable strain. At the weekend, Mr Hume condemned the attack on Mr Fee, but without mentioning the IRA. Later, however, after visiting Mr Fee, and hearing his account of the attack, Mr Hume acknowledged that the assailants were IRA.

Mr Hume has not publicly referred to the exchange between Mr Mallon and Mr Adams, but he has implicitly given the lie to his partner, Mr Adams. Mr Adams is not likely to let that rest there.

The whole business puts the future of Hume-Adams, and even the leadership of John Hume, in some doubt. Over the weekend, when asked about rumours of an IRA ceasefire, Mr Mallon said he was not interested in ceasefires, only in a permanent cessation of violence. He added: 'And I am speaking for the SDLP.'

There is an apparent reversal of roles here. In the past, and up to about a year ago, Mr Mallon was regarded as more 'extreme' in his nationalism than Mr Hume. This was always more a matter of style than of substance. Mr Mallon has always felt a need to say out loud what he thinks and feels. Mr Hume has never been in the grip of any comparable addiction. For a long time it suited Mr Hume, in the advancement of his nationalist agenda, to sound as if he had transcended nationalism. The difference between the two men is epitomised in this: when Mr Mallon wanted to refer to 'a united Ireland', he said 'a united Ireland'. When Mr Hume wanted to refer to a united Ireland, he said 'an agreed Ireland'.

The 'agreed Ireland' Mr Hume was understood to be looking for was an Ireland agreed between nationalists and Unionists. The 'agreed Ireland' Mr Hume has actually got is one agreed between constitutional nationalists and physical-force nationalists: the SDLP and Sinn Fein-IRA. Mr Hume's followers, including Mr Mallon, were prepared to go along with that, as long as it was believed that peace was, or might be, around the corner.

After more than three months of continuing IRA violence, since the date of the Downing Street Declaration, many SDLP members have been getting increasingly restive about Hume-Adams. For Seamus Mallon, the attack on John Fee was the last straw. By denouncing the IRA, and drawing the verbal fire of the IRA's political servant, Gerry Adams, Mr Mallon has put himself at the head of those in the SDLP who have had enough of Hume-Adams, and who therefore must soon have enough of Mr Hume as their leader, if he seeks to continue that partnership with Mr Adams.

For my part, I hope that Mr Hume will soon step down, and that he will be replaced by Mr Mallon. A Mallon-Adams partnership is simply not on the cards. The change would be a most healthy development.

For more than a year now, John Hume has been in the pocket of Sinn Fein-IRA - the pocket labelled 'peace'. His utterances, from out of that receptacle, have had a deeply damaging effect on the positions of the Dublin and London governments: especially Dublin. They have also blocked all possibility of serious talks between nationalists and Unionists in Ireland.

With an SDLP leader who has made his position in relation to the IRA as plain as Mr Mallon did last weekend, such talks will again become a serious possibility. So, roll on the change.

(Photograph omitted)