Political Commentary: Irish peace may rest on the Flashman Principle

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IN THE days when the Daily Mirror was a proper paper, the sub- editors had a favourite sentence. It would be uttered after one of them had mislaid a piece of copy, stolen a pencil or whatever it happened to be. It derived, I think, from the film Tom Brown's Schooldays rather than the novel:

'Flashman, you are a bully and a liar, and there is no place for you in this school.'

One evening the editor, Jack Nener, and his deputy, Dick Dinsdale, were overheard conversing as they stood next to each other in the lavatory.

'Who's this Flashman, then, Dick?' Nener inquired.

'Flashman?' Dinsdale replied. 'I don't think we've got anyone of that name here, Jack. Is he a reporter or a sub?'

'I don't give a f . . . what he is,' said Nener, who came from Swansea, 'but get rid of him bloody quick. He's a bully and a liar.'

This tale of Old Fleet Street always come into my head when Ireland is being discussed. So many of its constituent parts qualify for the application of the Flashman Principle: that, as boys may be expelled from schools, or gentlemen from clubs, so also may states from associations of states, or portions of states from states themselves.

Today Australia is giving us the Flashman treatment, as it is entitled to do. The Czech republic and Slovakia likewise applied the Flashman Principle. It is not a rigid principle. Citizens of England, Scotland and Wales are fully justified in applying it to Mr Albert Reynolds's government, to Mr Ian Paisley's, Mr James Molyneaux's and Mr Gerry Adams's parties, and to Mr Martin McGuinness's 'volunteers', as they are quaintly dubbed in the correspondence released last week.

It is a most enlightening document. The 19 corrections by Sir Patrick Mayhew, of which much was made by Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness, concern principally matters of protocol. They are along the lines of: 'After you, Claude. No, after you, Cecil.' The substance is unaltered.

It is that the positions of the Government and of Sinn Fein, the Provisionals and the IRA remain unchanged. For brevity I shall refer to Sinn Fein, even though it manifestly does not completely control the volunteers 'on the ground'. Its position is that the route to peace in Ireland is to be found in the restoration to the Irish people of their right to self- determination and in the free exercise of this right without impediment. The wish of the people, Sinn Fein goes on, is for Irish unity. In my opinion, this is a questionable assumption. It is by no means self-evident that the citizens of the Irish state would vote in favour either of the incorporation of the North into the South or even of an association between the two territories. Sinn Fein wants an all-Ireland referendum.

This is different from the Irish government's position: that, before a new state or association could be established, there would have to be separate referendums in North and South. The results of these polls might not agree with each other. Or they might agree, giving a result which was not to the taste either of Mr Reynolds or of Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness.

The Government has consistently said that it could not adopt the 'prior objective' of ending partition. A united Ireland would be achieved only through the consent (amplified in the Commons last week to 'freely expressed consent') of the people of Northern Ireland. To Sinn Fein, this is a commitment to 'uphold the Unionist veto' and to maintain 'partition and the six-county statelet'.

This last is an accurate little word for Northern Ireland 1922- 72, though less so for the province today. But a minor felicity should not conceal from us the tendentious use of 'veto'. One might just as well say that the majority vetoed the 1992 Labour government. No one is suggesting that the Unionists as a party should have a veto. Certainly neither Mr Molyneaux nor Dr Paisley is to have one - though they are undoubtedly more representative of the majority than Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness, whose party polled only 12 per cent of the vote at the last election, are of the minority.

Mr Reynolds does not go as far as Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness. What he seems to want is a declaration from Mr John Major that a united Ireland is desirable. This would commit Mr Major to working by political cajolery and maybe more forceful means to secure a majority for change in Northern Ireland. This Mr Major is at present reluctant to do.

It is not the deception of the House that I object to. It was with a wry smile that I read spirited defences of lying by bien pensant commentators more used to denouncing John Profumo and Anthony Eden. The moral seems to be that it is all right to mislead the House provided you approve the object to be attained.

I am angrier that one of the people the Government is thought to have dealt with in the past is a man who was present during the torturing to death of the undercover agent, Captain Robert Nairac, GC, in 1977. According to my Ministry of Defence informant, this man was not present during the whole horrible period, but looked in from time to time to see how his lads were getting on. I should add that this information did not come to me last week but has been in my possession for several years.

The correspondence is not only enlightening. It has a surreal quality. Thus Sinn Fein's leaders are, on 11 July, 'most displeased at what we read in the popular press'. Why, it might be Her Majesty herself] Earlier, the Government's representatives say: 'No one has a monopoly of suffering. There is a need for a healing process.' It is the prose of the get- well-soon card.

Sinn Fein's boys say after the Warrington bomb: 'It is with total sadness that we have to accept responsibility for the recent action. The last thing we needed at this sensitive time was what has happened.' Well, yes. The lads then go on to quote 'an old Irish proverb: God's hand works in mysterious ways'. An old Irish proverb it may well be, but it is also the first line of an old Protestant hymn 'God moves in a mysterious way', number 35 of the Olney Hymns, written by William Cowper in 1773. The literary conceit of the Irish knows no bounds.

All this assorted folk wisdom, interrupted spasmodically by the murder of children, the death of civilians and the shooting of soldiers, has greatly excited our liberal newspapers and their attendant broadcasters on the Today and Newsnight programmes. As I have demonstrated, the sides were as far apart at the beginning as they are now. We have enjoyed a certain clarification of Dublin's attitudes: that is all.

The conflict will be resolved by hard choices. My suggestion is that Mr Major should now extend the referendum principle from Northern Ireland to the UK as a whole. All the indications are that the majority of our citizens would vote to sever the union. 'Flashman,' they would say, 'you are a bully and a liar, and there is no place for you in this school.'