They have cried 'peace' once too often

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The Independent Online
THE republicans had their moment of history, and they blew it. The failure of Sinn Fein to grasp the opportunity given by the Downing Street Declaration sends the province back to the mire of murder and hopelessness. No one died at Letterkenny, but plenty more people will die, Unionist and republican, because of the collective political cowardice of the 500 delegates who met there.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were yesterday trying to put an optimistic gloss on their organisation's failure of nerve. They were dangling hints, larding a little praise on the mainstream politicians. It was all 'very positive'. The peace process 'has a momentum of its own'. And, in the words of a third Sinn Feiner, 'we are available today . . . we are available tomorrow'. And none of it means a thing. Not now, not after seven long months of waiting, of endless Sinn Fein mumbling and prevarication. No one outside their own sect will hear the latest protestations, however stentorian the tones of the actors hired to mouth these actors' words. They have cried 'peace' once too often.

It would have taken courage and a leap of imagination to end the habits of a generation and break out of the mental ghetto of violent revolt, which has subsided into warlordism and, in places, gangsterism. Had Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA announced an end to violence, they might have helped to achieve a settlement that brought their community cash, jobs and hope. The pressure would have been on everyone else to ensure that the Nationalists of the North felt well rewarded and secure. The hardest dilemmas would have faced the extreme Unionists, whose killers showed in recent months just how much they feared a compromise settlement.

Instead, Sinn Fein has confirmed that the only conditions on which the IRA will disband are if the British and Irish governments use their state authority to force the Northern Protestant majority into a United Ireland. The idea is a fantasy, born of extraordinary navety about politics on the mainland, never mind in Dublin.

It says, in effect, that Sinn Fein is not ready for politics. Politics is riskier and harder than murder. So long as this is the position, Gerry Adams will shrivel in importance, and rightly. No more trips to Washington. No more media glare. No more controlling the agenda. Whether he was genuinely committed to trying to break the deadlock (as I happen to think) no longer matters. His power came from his claim to speak for Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein has now spoken quite clearly for itself. Until it changes its view, it has walked away from the rest of the debate.

So the first question is whether the Downing Street Declaration was worth it. Unequivocally, it was. The Declaration laid out quite clearly the real limits of how far the two governments can go to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. It spoke what had previously been the unspeakable truth: that the Union with part of Ireland means nothing, emotionally or economically, to the modern Conservative Party (nor, it has to be added, to most of the people). Neither the Tories nor Labour would rat on the Unionists, because the price in blood and dishonour is too high. But the soldiers are there protecting a principle - democracy within established borders - more than they are protecting 'us British'.

It is important now to keep the talks going between the other parties. For London to swing from the evenhandedness of the Declaration to unadulterated Unionism would be to deny the reality already spelt out. It will not happen.

The other approach touted recently, of encouraging strong, devolved local councils to look after their own communities, has an obvious appeal; Northern Ireland is already divided into orange and green segments. (The story is told of one recent Northern Ireland Secretary who, when arriving, was shown the relevant Army map, studied it, and pronounced: 'Very interesting. And what is this blue bit here?' to be told, with some embarrassment, that it was Lough Neagh.) But this would force a new and savage population shift, as tribalism was formalised and entrenched in every corner of the Province. Whatever the answer is, it doesn't involve publicly funded Bantustans round Belfast.

That leaves the governments where they were, inching towards an autumn summit to produce the so-called 'framework document' about political talks. In essence, it is an attempt to re-create some form of power-sharing. The prospects for that are not so bad. Unionist politicians have recently been staring into the abyss of another spiral downwards into warlordism, and may be in the mood to join hands with fellow politicians. The SDLP, which has shown clear signs of being split during its leader's attempt to act as bridge-builder with Sinn Fein, desperately needs a new role.

Sinn Fein does not, as it claims, have a right to a place at those talks: the fiction that the party exists separately from the IRA is not now believed except, perhaps, by two or three ignorant romantics in some Boston bar. And the IRA, whatever informal private messages go to and fro, cannot be admitted to talk to politicians. We must assume that the holdall of Semtex providentially nicked on the 08.17 InterCity to Bournemouth was intended for the Prime Minister; and it is not generally considered polite to attempt to murder the people with whom you wish to converse.

The Major-Reynolds initiative therefore goes on as before, without Sinn Fein. The British Government was at pains to argue that nothing has been changed by the Letterkenny debacle; business as usual. That is right, in that the talks continue with the same participants. But it is also absurdly wrong, in that a process devised and intended to allow the main terrorist organisation to go into voluntary liquidation, has failed to achieve that aim. It is business as usual; but the business assumes the existence of political murder.

So finally, if the Declaration has failed in its core aim, has the Prime Minister been made to look a fool? On the contrary. Once the first smoke-signals came from the republican camp, he had to try. But he did more than try; he threw himself into the great risk of serious peacemaking and produced a Declaration that went as far as any mainstream British leader could go. John Major's administration hasn't been famous for courage or vision. But this is the great exception. That its courage was not answered by courage is bitter news for Northern Ireland. But it reflects no discredit on London.