The irritated person's guide to peacemaking

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE is going to have some reason for extreme irritation over the coming weeks, as the new Irish initiative takes its course. Those who find the Americans out of order in their efforts to intervene for the best have not been slow to express their irritation already. Who do the Americans think they are? Are they not as much part of the problem as of the solution? And what of the dollars that are supposed to pour into the province? When did throwing money at Ulster help?

Then there's that novel irritation, the Mandela Manoeuvre, whereby Gerry Adams establishes his credentials as a statesman and man of peace by talking of the Protestants as his dear fellow countrymen, by affecting to apologise for the errors of the past, offering a hand of friendship and co-operation for the future and speaking of peace when what we, and his supporters, think he means is victory.

This was the manoeuvre he executed on television yesterday morning for David Frost. It is very irritating because it is so calculated to play well among those with a predisposition to take it at face value, particularly in the States. Behold the Adams- Mandela apparition, the father of his whole people.

I speak only of irritation because others have written up the more sombre emotions. We get irritated when someone is plausible but insincere or wrong. And we get particularly irritated when we fear that someone may be right, but we do not want to hear it.

On Thursday, in the wake of the ceasefire, I was listening to Radio 4's The Moral Maze, hoping to be told what to think. This turns out to be a programme in which a panel of opinion-formers fails to listen to a series of witnesses. The witness from Belfast desperately tried not to be pushed into saying something he didn't mean. It was hard work.

The witness from Dublin was Conor Cruise O'Brien, whose views on the dangers of Hume-Adams had not changed. The most probable outcome of the peace process was British withdrawal and subsequent civil war. As Dr O'Brien outlined the future steps towards this catastrophe, Michael Buerk, the presenter, became irritated.

Finally - and with, I thought, a startling dismissiveness - he said something very like: 'This is too depressing. I'm not going to listen to any more of this.' And without further ado he deprived Dr O'Brien of his 'oxygen of publicity'. So this was our way through the moral maze] If the news is too depressing, don't listen.

Dr O'Brien sets the benchmark for the pessimistic view. If I don't agree with him, I usually feel that I ought at least to have some idea why he may be wrong. So if I'm irritated, it is normally with myself for not coming up with the answer.

The latest chain of events has put the O'Brien alternative strategy - which would have been the introduction of internment on both sides of the border in a general crackdown on known terrorists - even further from the realms of possibility than it was a few weeks ago. Imagine the wild incomprehension in the world at large. Imagine the sayings that would have to be unsaid, the diplomacy that would have to be unravelled, before such a solution could be introduced.

Instead we have co-operation between London, Dublin and Washington in this entirely different direction - legitimisation of terrorists, followed by forums and debates. We also have a more closely bipartisan policy in Britain - one in which the Opposition follows the Government. John Major made the point yesterday that he had not consulted the opposition parties, and he seemed proud of it. Tony Blair may make his tributes to Mr Major; Mr Major is not going to reciprocate.

So the only political basis in Britain for anything along the lines of what Dr O'Brien wanted would be among discontented elements of the Tory party. This does not mean that the strategy of internment is wrong. It just means that its introduction is an improbable dream.

When one turns to the O'Brien predictions, as outlined in this paper, we see that the agent for future chaos is to be the Sinn Fein 'unarmed struggle', what Mr Adams referred to as civil protests like yesterday's attempts to reopen border roads, 'coolly and moving it forward'. These are the means by which the IRA will provoke the Protestants and bring about a situation in which the intervening security forces find themselves fighting on two fronts. This in turn will bring British withdrawal, then civil war.

One reason why it is hard to be happy with this argument is that it stigmatises, out of hand, any element of the 'unarmed struggle'. I do understand that street protests in Northern Ireland can be violent, provocative things, and I think I understand that the prize in the sights of the IRA is victory.

But I do not see that the cleverest way forward for the IRA in terms of propaganda (which is the war on which they are concentrating, and in which they are doing so well) is by obvious violent provocations. There are better ways of manipulating world opinion. Nor do I see that British withdrawal would be triggered by stereophonic riots.

But we are being prepared for possible withdrawal, and the events of the past week have made it more possible. Step by step, the unthinkable has been massaged into thinkability, and it is astonishing to see the changes in the Tories alone.

The often-repeated formula of Peter Brooke in 1990 - 'no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland' - let the cat out of the bag. As a formula it is a nonsense: of course Britain has a strategic interest in Northern Ireland, which it would loudly assert if some belligerent world power decided to build a base there. Selfishness was never one of the major accusations, but in a way now, our interest in getting out of Ireland is a matter of selfishness. As for economic interest, Ulster is unlikely to be detached from Europe. We retain an interest.

But the significance of the nonsense formulation was as a signal. The same is true of this doctrine of indifference - what the people of Northern Ireland decide about their future is all up to them. This advertising of indifference, of lack of interest, this new pragmatism, this undemonisation of the IRA - it all sounds like a preparation of opinion back home.

And the news is welcome. We would all like to wake up and find that the getting-out had been achieved on our behalf. What's irritating is to be reminded of the cost.