The answer to the Irish question is British withdrawal

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The Independent Online
The situation in Northern Ireland is now about as serious as it has been at any time this century. Every policy tried by successive British governments has failed. The occupation of Ireland failed and so did partition and Stormont. Internment without trial failed, and so did direct rule, and supergrass trials and Diplock courts and plastic bullets and strip searching and the 1969 decision to send the troops in. Each of these measures has been hailed as a new start and each of them has ended in more bitterness, more violence and more deaths.

Two years ago, three men - John Hume, Albert Reynolds and Gerry Adams - succeeded in achieving what no British government had ever achieved, a genuine ceasefire. It transformed the atmosphere in Northern Ireland, bringing the communities together at grass-roots level. It brought in the Irish government and the American government and it opened the possibility of real talks. But the British government never allowed those talks to take place.

The Government raised obstacle after obstacle about whether the ceasefire was permanent, whether the weapons would be decommissioned, and by delaying, it lost the best chance that we have had for progress. The resumption of the bombing in Britain and now the latest explosion in the barracks in Northern Ireland is bringing back the pressure from the Unionists for more and more repressive measures.

It should be clear, after the triumphalist march at Portadown in the summer and the intransigent statements made by Unionist leaders, that under no circumstances would the Unionists ever agree to sit round the table with the nationalists with the serious intention of developing a new framework for the island.

The issue here is not between Catholic and Protestant as such, since both communities have suffered from unemployment as well as the ravages caused by the bombs. Nor is it about forcing the North into the South, because Sinn Fein know in their hearts that this cannot be done and the Republic has long ago given up on that idea.

If both Britain and the Irish Republic simultaneously abandoned their claim to the North, the situation could be transformed. The key to peace is that the future of Ireland as a whole should be resolved by the Irish people themselves in agreement between North and South and the two communities in the North. That is what John Hume has always advocated and its importance lies in the fact that it emphasises that there has long been a British problem in Ireland rather than an Irish problem in the United Kingdom.

For a quarter of a century, there has been a clear majority in Britain for this country to leave Northern Ireland. I have introduced a number of Bills into the House of Commons that would terminate British jurisdiction in Northern Ireland on 31 December 1999. This would release a huge peace dividend - now wasted in the continued military operations - to fund the development that is so urgently needed in both North and South.

Such a move would also attract political and economic support from all over the world, including the United States and Europe, where the Irish cause has always attracted far more support than we have been allowed to know.

Whenever this argument has been put forward, we have been told that without British troops the Protestants would launch a savage attack upon the Catholics and drive them out in a massive exercise of ethnic cleansing. But both communities live and work side by side, and always have done, and Britain has never been a peace-maker. If some interim peace-keeping force were required, the UN would be better qualified than Britain to offer help over the transition.

The problem is that the Unionists want British troops in Northern Ireland to protect their privileges and cover their backs, so they can continue their long-term process of discrimination against the minority of Catholics.

The present bipartisan policy has virtually turned off the light at the end of the tunnel and made it almost impossible for Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA to resume the ceasefire. The traditional Labour policy, in opposition to partition, was for an all-Irish convention with guarantees for minorities and the withdrawal of British troops.

Today, we should be working to build confidence between the communities in the North and co-operation between North and South, even if they remain separate entities. Those who believe in this approach, and I am certainly one of them, should never give up their hope that it can and will be achieved. But time is running out, and if the goodwill, common sense and vision necessary to bring it about is no longer present at the top, the campaign must continue.

Ireland has suffered under British rule for centuries. The Irish people should decide their own future, free from London government and all the follies and crimes for which it has been responsible.

For a very long time, the war in Ireland has been the biggest single political issue in British politics. Since 1969, there have been more than 30,000 shootings, 16,000 explosions, with over 3,000 people killed, 33,000 people injured and more than 7,000 detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The cost has been more than pounds 15bn.

Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat played a key role in the search for peace in South Africa and Israel. Gerry Adams has the same role to play now in Northern Ireland, paving the way for the withdrawal of Britain.

The writer was a member of the Cabinet in 1969 when troops were sent into Northern Ireland.