A similar welcome was extended, a little more than eight years ago, to the Anglo-Irish agreement concluded at Hillsborough, County Down, on 15 November 1985. That agreement was hailed as heralding 'the end of the alienation of the minority' and 'the reconciliation of the two traditions in Ireland'. It was also supposed to be about to 'marginalise the men of violence'.
Before deciding on the validity of the present claims, it would be as well to reflect on the extent to which the claims once made for Hillsborough have stood up to the test of experience.
Consider first 'the end of the alienation of the minority'. Shortly before the second anniversary of Hillsborough - and as it happened, on the eve of the Poppy Day massacre at Enniskillen - there was a verdict on that one, from Sir Charles Carter, whose credentials in this area are impeccable. In the heyday of Unionist triumphalism, and the Stormont parliament, Sir Charles's had been a lonely voice in Protestant Ulster, in demanding acceptance of minority rights. After two years experience of the Hillsborough agreement, he found that the agreement had 'brought about the alienation of the majority, without ending the alienation of the minority'. After six further years of such experience, that verdict remains valid.
The claim about 'reconciling the two traditions' was always intrinsically even more flimsy than the one about 'ending the alienation'. It ought to have been obvious that you can't reconcile two traditions by talks and declarations in which only one of them is represented.
That was true of Hillsborough and it is also true of yesterday's joint declaration. The declaration's recognition - 'the ending of divisions can come about only through the agreement and co-operation of the people, north and south, representing both traditions in Ireland' - is correct, but rings hollow in context. If Albert Reynolds believed that, he should be quietly talking to the Unionists, instead of issuing joint declarations with others over their heads.
The most brutally exploded of the three false claims made for Hillsborough - in a similar atmosphere to that which this week's partners are trying to recreate - is the one about 'marginalising the men of violence'. In terms of actual physical violence we now have not one but two sets of active paramilitary organisations, regularly matching one another in atrocity. In terms of political influence, the men of violence - in this case specifically the Provisional IRA - have actually moved in from the margins to dominate the centre. Gerry Adams, with the full approval of the IRA leadership, has taken his place at John Hume's side as joint leader of a pan-nationalist and pan-Catholic consensus on Northern Ireland: a consensus that now drags the republic in its wake.
If that is what 'marginalisation' has come to mean, the Provisional IRA will happily accept further large instalments of the same. And it appears, this week, well on its way to getting them.
The most ominous feature of this week's joint declaration is the extent to which its vocabulary reflects that of the earlier Hume-Adams accord of last April, which has been explicitly endorsed by the Provisional IRA. This week's declaration includes certain formulae straight out of Hume-Adams, and while these formulae are heavily qualified in the Anglo-Irish document, it is their inclusion, not their qualification, that will register with both communities in Ireland.
I quote the relevant passages, italicising the words that will be seen, by friend and foe alike, as registering the rising influence of the Provisional IRA, through its trusted political intermediaries, over both the British and Irish governments:
'The British government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively to exercise their right of self determinaton on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, north and south, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish . . . The Taoiseach . . . accepts on behalf of the Irish government that the democratic right of self determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of northern Ireland.'
The words of power in the joint declaration are those italicised. The qualifiers, about Unionist 'consent' will neither reassure many Unionists nor exercise any restraint over nationalists. Unionist consent, if not immediately available, can always be obtained later. Mr Adams's friends are already working on that problem, and were still working on it even while the Anglo-Irish joint declaration was in preparation.
The murders of the two RUC men on the eve of that declaration confirmed a well-established message: those who oppose 'Ireland's right to self determination' and so withhold the consent referred to in the declaration, know that they are, and will remain, legitimate targets of the organisation which both the British and Irish governments are at present determined to appease, and which the joint declaration is specifically designed to propitiate. The two most significant facts about the Anglo-Irish joint declaration concern first its content and, second, its genesis.
As regards its content, this is the first joint statement by British and Irish governments that alludes to Ireland's right to self determination. The allusion is qualified, for the moment at least, but it remains more important than the qualifications, even as long as the qualifications remain in force.
The genesis of the allusion to self- determination lies in the Hume-Adams talks, conducted in the shadow of the IRA and shaped in conformity with the IRA's dictates. In the preparation for the talks, Mr Reynolds had been in touch with the IRA - through Mr Hume and Mr Adams, and Mr Major had been in touch with them - although he denied this - through unnamed intermediaries. In short, both the Dublin and London governments have been dancing to the IRA's tune.
That might make a kind of sense, as a 'peace process', if the IRA were the only terrorists involved. As the loyalist paramilitaries are also there, and no less formidable, attempts to appease the IRA can only further destabilise northern Ireland, just as the Anglo-Irish agreement had done, but worse.
The Official Unionists are (at the time of writing) trying to play it cool - on 'it could have been worse' lines - and they will be praised for this. Perhaps they are right. I hope so, for I wish them well. But I think they should be mindful of the political fate of Brian Faulkner and the 'Sunningdale Unionists' nearly 20 years ago. Faulkner was - as James Molyneaux now is - an honourable literal-minded, pragmatic politician. He saw the Sunningdale 'Council of Ireland' as practically meaningless, which it was. But it was also symbolically explosive, and his acceptance of it destroyed him and his whole political following. I fear that Mr Molyneaux may be near to making a similar mistake over the 'self determination' of yesterday's Anglo-Irish declaration.
In the meantime, Sinn Fein-IRA, working through Mr Adams and Mr Hume, have the political ball at their feet. They can have a ceasefire, at any time of their choosing, and break it off whenever they choose. In the meantime they are doing fine, even without any ceasefire, as they have just amply demonstrated.
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