The hollow sound of peace talks

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The Independent Online
SO WE NOW know that HMG, despite previous denials, has been in communication with the Provisional IRA. So what else is new? For more than 20 years, leading British politicians have been in intermittent and usually deniable communication with the Provisionals. This process of communication is high among the reasons why the Provisional IRA is the most durable and flourishing terrorist organisations in the world.

The first British leader to make contact with the Provisional leadership was Harold Wilson. That was in March 1972, about a year after the Provisional offensive had begun. Wilson, then leader of the Opposition, came to Dublin ostensibly for talks with the leaders of 'the three democratic parties' but actually for talks with the leaders of the Provisional IRA. Wilson regarded these talks as part of 'a peace process' (just as the dialogue divulged this week is supposed to be part of a peace process). The Provisionals' leaders, much more realistically, regarded the Wilson visit (which, of course, they soon leaked to the media) as a major propaganda coup for their movement, a handsome early dividend for their campaign of violence, a boost to the morale of their rank and file, a stimulus to recruitment, and a harbinger of eventual victory.

The transactions divulged this week are just the latest booster-shots in a version of a peace process that keeps the terrorists in business and adds to their number.

The Wilson mission was clearly undertaken with the blessing of the Conservative government, for that government speedily improved on the Wilson initiative. William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Heath government, actually summoned the Provisional leadership, and conveyed them, in official helicopters, to Whitehall for talks. The talks, of course, broke down amid mutual recriminations, and were immediately followed by further spectacular atrocities perpetrated by order of the terrorist leaders, who had just been spectacularly courted by HMG.

This response, on the part of the terrorist leaders, was entirely logical and its logic has been confirmed by what has become a well-established pattern of behaviour on the part of successive British governments. Over 20 years the Provisional leadership has come to be able to gauge the probable reactions of any British government exceedingly well. The recently divulged transactions are only the latest confirmation of this capacity on the part of the world's most seasoned terrorists, a capacity acquired courtesy of HMG.

Mr Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew claim that the recent dialogue (about dialogue) was initiated by the IRA and not by HMG. The IRA vehemently denies this. As in previous instances, each party accuses the other of lying, and each is doing some lying itself. On this particular point I believe HMG, and not the IRA. I do so not because the credibility of HMG concerning this category of transactions is by now any higher, intrinsically, than that of the terrorists to whom successive British governments have been in the habit of deniably snuggling up. I believe HMG on this point, rather than the IRA, because the IRA's motive for lying about this is much the stronger. The British government claims to have received a message that the IRA was on the verge of collapse and in need of official British help to bring its campaign of violence to an end.

Obviously the IRA, very much still in business, must deny that any such message was sent. Yet it clearly was sent, initially, through an intermediary, and probably through the 'Hume' end of Hume-Adams, which the IRA has exploited as if it were the most plausible and effective front it could ever devise. The message was sent, and just as the IRA had foreseen, HMG fell for the proffered straw like a ton of bricks. There is no mistaking the pathetic authenticity of the eager opening sentence of the British reply of 5 November now retrospectively acknowledged: 'Your message of 2 November is taken as being of the greatest importance and significance'.

As decoded at IRA headquarters that quavering message reads: 'We are more anxious than ever to get out of Northern Ireland. Please help us to save our faces while we do so. How about a ceasefire for starters?'

From that, the IRA knows that even to hold out the hope of a possible conditional ceasefire is a powerful political weapon to be used in judicious conjunction with a sustained (or alternated with a renewed) armed struggle. One way to conduct a sophisticated terrorist campaign is to feign to be about to give it up, on the basis of an ever-elusive compromise, and with the aid of a never ending supply of Lenin's 'useful fools'. The soil of both our islands is fertile in these.

British official dealings with the Provisionals would make sense of a sort if they were part of a policy, a calculated prelude to British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. But these dealings have now been going on for 22 years - some prelude] The sad reality is that there is no British policy towards Northern Ireland. There is only a pattern of weary and distasteful habit, made up in part of business as usual, and in part of a series of neurotic tics, collectively described as 'the peace process' and stemming from an intractable itch to shed responsibility, rather than exercise it. The peace tics continue to stimulate the conflicting hopes and fears of both communities in Northern Ireland, and have thus endowed the province with not one but two flourishing sets of mutually- hostile terrorist organisations. Catholic and Protestant terrorists are now neck- and-neck in murderous competition.

No, I don't expect any progress towards peace to be made at today's meeting between John Major and Albert Reynolds. The conflict is not between Dublin and London. It is between unionists and nationalists in Ireland, and those are the parties between whom peace will some day (I hope) have to be made. The British Parliament and Government could help with that if they had a policy, but they do not. They are just martyrs to those


The only thing certain about the future of Northern Ireland is that things will have to get worse before they get better, if they get better. And I am less hopeful about that 'if' this week than I have been for a long time.