Leading article: Time to surrender the old hatreds

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The Independent Online
TO ECHO Tony Blair's words about the Northern Ireland peace process we remain "cautiously, stubbornly optimistic". Of course, there are big questions that still need to be resolved as we enter the endgame. The powers of the new North-South body are especially troublesome. But we suspect that the momentum and will for peace are now too great to be defeated. It is at this point, when the peace process becomes a peace settlement, that it will move into its most dangerous phase.

We worry about the response of the Provisional IRA. It may well be that they ultimately find the deal unacceptable. The new arrangements will, after all, be unlikely to deliver a 32-county united Ireland even on a distant horizon. Hardline republicans, then, might not give up, but, as in the past, respond by changing their tactics. How? Consider the assessment of the ex-IRA man Sean O'Callaghan, who told the BBC Today programme that the IRA's future strategy would revolve around "the politics of tension". As he put it: "You will get enough violence to make you aware of their presence and their capability and enough to keep Northern Ireland in a constant state of unease."

What will not change is their opportunism. The IRA long ago arrogated to itself the right to be the sole "protector" of the nationalist community. It did this by ruthlessly exploiting real and imagined grievances. As we approach the Ulster marching season, it must not now be granted new tensions to capitalise on.

The decision of the independent Commission on Parades to prevent the Apprentice Boys from marching in the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast should be respected. As the chairman of the Commission, Alistair Graham, said: "Our view is that the best way forward in terms of relieving inter-community tensions arising from disputes at this location is that the ground should be prepared for one or more parades to take place in a peaceful atmosphere". He is right. A Unionist spokesman recently said: "The Orangemen didn't walk their traditional routes last year in the interests of the greater good but there has been no good faith shown to the Unionist community by the Government." Whether or not the British government has treated them badly the greater good has not gone away. Mo Mowlam should uphold the Commission's judgement against appeals by the loyalists.

In fact the British and Irish governments and Northern Irish politicians themselves have served their peoples during this peace process very well. But priceless though their work and the efforts of bodies like the Commission on Parades is, we are still waiting for an adequate response from the Orange movement. They fail to see that unless they respond there will be plenty of less triumphal anniversaries for them and their children and their grandchildren to mark. They need to think the unthinkable. They must emasculate their own ways. They must see how much more hope there would be if the Orange marches were sanitised, filleted of political meaning and could be made as harmless and empty of offence as other charming customs whose origins are lost in time, like morris dancing, the State Opening of Parliament or the persecution of Peter Mandelson.

We are not so naive as to think that it would be easy to persuade the chaps whose catchphrase is "No Surrender" immediately to start skipping down the Falls Road with little bells tied to their bowlers and the customary "serious clashes" confined to their brollies. We also know that you cannot wish away historical hatreds. The fate of the former Yugoslavia shows that conflict can be cryogenically preserved for centuries. and quickly and easily revitalised. (The current conflict in the Kosovo region rests on the mystical importance of a battle that took place there in 1389). But what one could call the "folksification" of Ulster's sectarian traditions cannot start soon enough.

Of course our modest proposal will not be taken up by the "loyal brethren" who will fight for their "civil rights". So as a last indulgence let us celebrate a different anniversary. Twenty-five years ago Ulster politicians and the British and Irish governments signed the Sunningdale agreement. This set up a Northern Ireland power-sharing executive and a PR assembly, and made provision for a cross-border body (the "Council of Ireland"). It was soon brought down by the actions of hardline grassroots activists and an upsurge in sectarian violence. There was little that the Army or the British or Irish government could do. It was, until now, the end of self-government for the province. This settlement will be superior. It will, through the twin referendums on both sides of the border, be more legitimate. This time, we hope, the "grass-roots" will be more supportive and not give the hard men their chance to wreck the settlement. They could start by leaving the sashes their fathers wore at home this year.