Terrorists become statesmen: fact of life

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The Independent Online
YES, it is hard to stomach the New York beatification of Gerry Adams, statesman, devout patriot, friend to small children everywhere. The tongue-licking he enjoyed from innocent interviewers and anti-British politicians was a blow to national pride. The fact that this was a propaganda coup which had been aided by incompetent and belated British diplomacy, and by the costive immobility of the Unionists, too proud to take their own case to the United States, was not particularly comforting.

But if there is to be peace in Northern Ireland, then there is going to be more of this, folks. We are going to have to swallow hard as former killers transmute into politicians. Worse, we are going to have to do everything in our power to help that transformation happen.

For the United States is, of course, a sideshow. Since the joint declaration, the Belfast Kremlinologists have concluded that the IRA is split about whether to reject it or not. Ministers believe that Mr Adams's immediate preoccupation is to play for time while trying to put maximum pressure on London for promises about an amnesty, the withdrawal of troops, and so on. They are growing tired of the delay and want to move on to inter-party talks without Sinn Fein. Meanwhile they have been rewarding the Unionists and talking tough about further contacts with nationalists.

So they drift apart, their original contacts now the stuff of denial, allegations of forgery and fading memory. The dream of peace crumbles away in silence. But before we all turn grimly back to business as usual, it is worth asking whether it needs to end this way.

British ministers are, of course, right to say that it is the IRA who need to make a fundamental decision. There is a simple question that Gerry Adams needs to answer, which does not depend on any clarification. It is this: will the IRA lay down its arms for any deal which does not lead inexorably to a united Ireland?

If the answer is no, the conflict will go on. If the 17,000 British troops stay, it will go on as it does now. If they were withdrawn (along, presumably, with the pounds 4bn annual subsidy) it would go on as a fight to the death between rival warlords. If Northern Ireland were incorporated into the Republic, it would go on as a separatist insurrection: Dublin and Cork would get in the future what London and Warrington have had in the past.

If the IRA's answer is yes, that means they have resigned themselves to the failure of murder as a means of bringing about Irish unity. And that means a Northern Irish veto on merger with the south, since the idea that the British could 'persuade' Unionists to accept unification is ludicrous: in the Orange demonology, the treacherous spawn of Whitehall come somewhere between Sinn Fein press officers and Sicilian cardinals.

So that is the essential question. We know that if the majority in Northern Ireland voted to join the Republic, Britain would agree, with delight. But if they don't, will the IRA ever let them alone? Unfortunately for British pride, John Major's duty goes rather further than simply folding his arms and waiting silently for the answer.

It will be difficult for the IRA to end its violence, however difficult it is for their victims to acknowledge that. These are people born and soaked in a culture of violent romanticism. To accept that their life's purpose has failed, that their people have killed and died for nothing, that all those funerals, hunger strikes, prison sentences, double lives and fear-haunted retirements add up to surrender, would be a bitter mouthful, even for 'hardened terrorists'.

If that draught of self-knowledge can be sweetened, shouldn't it be? If there is, as it seems, only a limited amount of 'face' in the world, perhaps Mr Major should not be too proud. There is more that can be done, without sacrificing principle, to help Sinn Fein to change.

Could we have, for a start, less name-calling in the Commons? Talk of 'decontaminating' Sinn Fein confirms republicans of all sorts in their view that the British Government is fundamentally hostile to them - a suspicion that the declaration was supposed to rebut. After so long when the Government was speaking to the IRA privately, it is difficult to understand the frigid horror with which Downing Street now greets any talk of further contacts.

Some clarifications will be unwelcome to the IRA: will the British servicemen be withdrawn? As tension falls, so they might start to thin out and leave the streets but there could be no general 'troops out' while political killings continue. Etcetera. But the sooner these things are openly discussed, the better.

As part of that openness, the broadcasting ban should go. This has become a complete disaster. It gave the IRA a cheap and easy propaganda point in the United States, while at home the actor's-voice puppetry merely elevates Sinn Feiners above the general telebabble. Much as I respect Ruth Dudley Edwards, I thought her argument on this page yesterday for the ban was dangerous. Citing Bagehot, she said that you had to have order before 'the luxury of liberty'. That could neatly justify state censorship on a host of issues.

Some people will see the above arguments as appeasement, the slippery slope that ends in the triumph of terrorism. First the joint declaration, then clarifications, then further concessions . . .

But that is emotionalism, not logic. The basic proposition that the future of Northern Ireland can only be decided by a majority of its people is not only clear in principle but immovable in practice, for reasons stated above. It is accepted in the south, in Britain and in the United States. And there is an impassable gulf between that and strategies designed to make it easier for the terrorists to disband and turn to politics.

Whether it works or fails, it is the last mile British politicians need to go. They don't have to enjoy it, and nor do the rest of us. Emotionally, we may revolt at the sight of Mr Adams playing the statesman in New York. Intellectually, we know that unless he turns into a statesman in Belfast, there is no hope for peace for many years to come. If part of the price is watching him being cosseted by ignorant Congressmen, maybe that's a price worth paying.