For 25 years, the British government has insisted that it is not engaged in a war which can be resolved by negotiations or treaties. The IRA, it said, was nothing more than a band of common criminals; a 'settlement' with them was as unthinkable as one with the Kray gang. Its members - or those suspected of membership - forfeited civil rights: the right to travel freely between Ulster and the mainland, the right to trial by jury. Its sympathisers in Sinn Fein were denied even the right to speech on television and radio. Yet last week Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, dominated the news bulletins, interviewed respectfully by such dignitaries as David Dimbleby. The words were still spoken by an actor, though occasionally, like children eavesdropping on a foul- mouthed uncle, we caught faint snatches of the forbidden voice. His media exposure was beyond the dreams of, say, the Scottish Nationalist Party, which has never even threatened terrorist action and which, at the last general election, got more than twice the proportion of the Scottish vote as Sinn Fein got in Northern Ireland. Mr Major is either very fickle in the strength of his unionist feeling - strong for Scotland, weak for Northern Ireland - or (the awful but obvious alternative) violence works.
We may not be surprised, then, by the street parties of republican Belfast. Why do loyalists suspect 'secret deals' when the big deal itself stands plain and visible to all. If the IRA renounces violence for three months it is admitted to the realm of constitutional discourse, to talks about talks at least. That alone is a victory for people hitherto treated as outlaws.
To say all this is merely to describe reality, not to denounce it. If a cessation of violence was on offer, it could not be spurned either in London or Dublin. To reject this opportunity would be to say, in effect, that the conflict must continue indefinitely, to hope for a complete military defeat of the IRA, an outcome that 25 years has shown to be impossible. Last week was a propaganda victory for the IRA; but a rejection from Downing Street would have presented the terrorists with an even bigger one.
Where does Northern Ireland go from here? At first sight, a lasting solution looks as far away as ever. The gun has worked because politics has failed, with every proposal proving, to echo Parnell's words from the 1890s, to have some fatal clog or fatal drag. Agreement must be less, not more, likely if it has to accommodate the intransigence and absolutism of the IRA. On one side will stand Sinn Fein, committed to a united Ireland. On the other will stand Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, seeing even cross- border co-operation as the work of the Devil. Mr Adams spoke last week of disbanding the RUC, as though this might be some preliminary gesture of goodwill. This would be utterly unacceptable to most Unionists. On the other hand, probably even the most rabid loyalists would accept the merits of joint north-south authorities to promote tourism or improve transport: a bathetic end for the IRA to so much blood and martyrdom and poetry.
This is the old story. What is new - and, for Unionists, shockingly new - is the beginning of what might be called the de- Britification of Northern Ireland as a problem and perhaps ultimately as a territory. Dublin and Washington have achieved what London could not do on its own. They will not go away, no more than Mr Adams can be put back in his box. Northern Ireland's religious, cultural and political majority needs to find ways of coping with and exploiting this internationalisation, which so far has favoured the republican side. They need bigger and better politicians with bigger and better ideas. No surrender, their only slogan, will not work.Reuse content