Rolling the rock back up the hill

Perhaps bringing peace to Northern Ireland is an impossible task: but it's time to start all over again
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The Independent Online
This was the IRA's failure, not the failure of any politician. It leads nowhere. It is an act of unimaginative despair by fantasists who never got it - who really thought that the democratic representatives of many millions of European people could be menaced or hoodwinked into agreeing an Irish settlement that they had never been driven to by years of violence. Did they think that? Did they really? We can only assume this morning that they did.

Canary Wharf was chosen not (presumably) because of the dangerous views of the journalists who work here but because the IRA Army Council thinks, or at least half hopes, that the British Government could be forced to move by attacks on the commercial heart of London - that if deaths in conference hotels and army barracks would not shift them, the pleas of international capital and insurance brokers would. It is naive anarchist- primer stuff. Any British politician suspected of crumpling because of commercial bombing would be finished.

The know-alls and professional pessimists will take a grim delight in the end of the peace process, if that is what we are witnessing. They will remind us of the irreconcilable communities, and of the incompatible visions of Unionism and Irish nationalism, and of the increasing signs of panic and strain within the Republican movement. And in doing all this, they will imply that the politicians who embarked on such a fruitless journey were naive, innocent, even foolish. But nothing about this was or is inevitable. It is all about human choices and the contest between different kinds of courage. And before we utterly despair and turn our thoughts to easier matters, let us count up a few benefits.

Had the violence carried on at roughly the same level as it had in the early Nineties - had the ceasefire simply not happened - then by my estimate around 110 people now alive would be dead, never mind the thousands who would have been maimed but who are today living whole. This having been a mostly random terror, they don't know who they are. But their survival is an absolute good, which we should never forget in the recrimination which will follow last night.

More generally, there has been the solid experience of normality in Northern Ireland; the more than a year's-worth of nights out without checkpoints or sudden shudders of fear; the jobs coming where there were precious few jobs before; the Catholics and Protestants experiencing a richer, more open sort of childhood. For a million, these have been special, quiet months of living differently, living better. And the gunmen, who can do so many things to them, can never take those months away.

All that experience may have a political effect on the social support for the IRA and the Protestant terrorists. It would be ridiculous today to be optimistic. The hard cases couldn't have fought their urban war for all these years without the assent, and more than assent, of tens of thousands of their neighbours and family. Many of those neighbours had grown up for all their lives in a place where peace seemed a ridiculous impossibility. Do they feel that still? Will the past 17 months change the way they think and behave at all?

There will be, if the bombing proves more than the act of a splinter, demonstrations and sporadic violence of the kind that the paramilitaries can turn on at will. But it will not be clear for a while whether the wider mood in the nationalist community has changed. So this will be a time for governments to stay cool. There will be enough hot words over the next few days. What matters most if the avoidance of new provocations of any kind - we need no phrases or actions which would help people to scurry back into their ancient bunkers and trenches.

Major and his ministers are likely now to come under sustained political attack from Dublin, where many politicians had already written off the Conservatives as being no longer seriously interested in peace, merely in their parliamentary relationship with the Ulster Unionists. John Hume, of the SDLP, will feel horrified and vindicated at the same time. More ominously, this seems to be what the IRA itself believes.

Even now, I think that this is wrong. John Major can act cynically and is a man with a brutal instinct for realpolitik. But he is a bigger man than that. He would not wittingly destroy the peace process, his own best chance of History, for a few uncertain Ulster votes. It is far likelier that he simply did not believe this would happen, that he'd been drawn into thinking that the IRA could be kept morosely silent for a while yet.

His refusal to order the Unionists to the negotiating table without any decomissioning of arms wasn't about a huddled deal in the Government Whips' office at Westminster: it derived from the certain knowledge that had he given such an order, he would have been told very simply to get stuffed. David Trimble and his colleagues are immune from pressure exerted by Downing Street. That is, perhaps, part of the problem. But it is a fact of life too little recognised in the Republic.

So what now can be done? There will surely be a very fast London-Dublin summit with a desperate appeal for second thoughts, while local politicians and spooks attempt desperately to find out whether this is what it seems to be. Sinn Fein ought not to be pushed back into the marginal position of being "IRA-Sinn Fein" while that goes on. It seems highly likely that the political party did not know in advance about any resumption of violence. They seemed caught on the hop last night. There may be a split of a significant kind occurring. Gerry Adams himself is now in a very difficult and probably very dangerous position; if he has counter-proposals, they need to be heard seriously without too much huffing and puffing by Westminster politicians. This is not a moment for Pavlovian instincts. Similarly President Clinton's offer of a new summit should not be immediately dismissed.

But we must face the fact that none of this may matter a damn. If the IRA is determined on fighting, if there is nothing short of a process leading inexorably to a United Ireland which will pacify them, them the war will return. But that will not, cannot, lead to a military victory by which Ireland is united against the will of the majority in the North. This was never going to happen, despite the conspiracy theorists of Belfast and London Unionism. And because of that, the IRA's struggle is a hopeless struggle in which lives are ended and ruined to no purpose. Volunteers as well as their victims will be lambs on the alter of futility.

Perhaps bringing peace to Northern Ireland is itself a sisyphean task, and endless, thankless and impossible exertion. But now the rock has rolled back down the hill again with a rumble that has shaken, quite literally. the Independent, there is nothing for it but to gather round and start pushing it back up again.