Leading Article: Time to bring home the debate

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The Independent Online
BRITONS tuning in to radio or television tomorrow morning can expect to hear news of a fiery debate between Gerry Adams and Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist MP. Last week saw a similar clash when the Sinn Fein leader locked horns with Michael Mates, a former Northern Ireland minister.

These debates are welcome developments. At last, the testing rituals of democratic politics include even Mr Adams. Instead of relying on IRA violence to advance his cause, he now must justify himself in the mass media against able adversaries.

Yet there is something farcical about these events. After a long conflict that has claimed more than 3,000 lives, one might have expected the IRA's chief apologist to face vigorous public cross- examination in London and Belfast. Instead, the United States is playing host to the debates. British audiences have the bizarre experience of watching the politics of this country unravel on another continent.

The continuing ban on Mr Adams from entering Britain is partly to blame. So is the apparent reluctance of the British media and politicians to tackle Mr Adams in Belfast, since he cannot come to London. But a more deep-seated problem lies behind the lack of a public debate here: indifference.

Most people in Britain are, and perhaps always have been, strangely unconcerned about John Bull's other island. They may feel bemused, angry, even a little guilty about Northern Ireland, but any sense of involvement is passing and often superficial.

Even at the height of the IRA's mainland bombing campaign, there was never a serious debate in Britain about the province's future.

In an era when old disputes have suddenly been settled, a solution to problems of Northern Ireland has been slow to materialise. Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Africa have all seen dramatic progress, but Ulster has come late to the top of the political agenda.

Yet, since the IRA ceasefire at the end of August, politicians, the media and public alike have remained reluctant to seize the moment and have a completely new kind of discussion.

The debate is dragging its feet here in Britain, while in the United States and Republic of Ireland, it is alive and fervent. British indifference to Northern Ireland allowed injustice to fester unchallenged for generations, and so provide a recruiting ground for the IRA.

The danger now is that paralysis here will hold up the peace. Britain should play its proper role, and not simply look on as Washington and Dublin take the lead.