This flirtation will end in tears

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The Independent Online
SOME curious things are happening in Ireland in the name of peace. The things in question have been going on for years in a fairly quiet way, but they gathered momentum this year and they came to dominate the nationalist politics of the whole island last week, when the Dublin government, after a long meeting between the prime minister, Albert Reynolds, the foreign minister, Dick Spring, and John Hume, made known its approval of what it still likes to refer to as 'the Hume-Adams talks'. Actually, what is involved by now is much more than 'talks', but I shall come to that in a moment.

Gerry Adams is, of course, the president of Sinn Fein, and, as such, ex officio, the principal apologist for 'the armed struggle' of the Provisional IRA. John Hume is the leader of the SDLP, aka 'the constitutional nationalist', and best known, both in Ireland and internationally, for his eloquent opposition to the armed struggle in question.

The rationale of the Hume-Adams talks, as generally understood, is that Mr Hume is trying to persuade Mr Adams to persuade the latter's principals, the Provisional IRA, to desist from their armed struggle. On this basis, most people in nationalist (aka Catholic) Ireland identify 'Hume-Adams' with the cause of peace, and approve of it accordingly. A poll in the republic last week showed 72 per cent of respondents in favour of Hume-Adams.

Unfortunately, there is more to Hume-Adams than talks, and the peace that Hume-Adams represents is a special kind of peace. Mr Hume and Mr Adams have signed a joint declaration expressing their common commitment to 'the right of the Irish people to self- determination'. The IRA's armed struggle is, of course, wholly based on the assertion of the right in question.

The armed struggle was continuing when the Hume-Adams Joint Declaration was issued, and it continues today. So does the armed struggle of the loyalist paramilitaries against the nationalist assertion of that right, over their community. The kind of peace that the Hume-Adams joint declaration presages is the peace that would be achieved if and when the nationalist tradition prevails over the unionist one, in the whole island of Ireland. Unless and until that is achieved, what Hume-Adams stands for is not peace but civil war.

Mr Hume is still committed, at least in theory, to the resumption of dialogue with the unionists, in the framework of the talks on the future of Northern Ireland. But the message that the joint declaration sends to unionists of all descriptions is that what is required of them, at the end of the day, is not compromise but capitulation. As they are not ready for that, why should they resume the talks? (The Ulster Unionist James Molyneaux is said to have agreed to talk to Mr Spring, but if so, he will explain to him that Hume-Adams has no unionist takers.)

What can Hume-Adams lead to, in practice? It can lead to an IRA ceasefire. That has been the object of the talks. It is attainable, and may be achieved before the end of the year. But it will be a conditional ceasefire and will hold only as long as the IRA believes progress is being made towards the acceptance by Britain of the right asserted in the joint declaration - the right of the Irish people to national self- determination. That means that Britain must be seen to be abandoning the unionists, at least by stages, or the ceasefire will break down.

The more astute minds in Sinn Fein- IRA will hope for a protracted ceasefire, during which they can build up their political influence and perceived legitimacy, especially in the republic. Already, even without a ceasefire, and through merely holding out the hope of one, represented by Hume-Adams, Sinn Fein-IRA have reaped rich political dividends. Albert Reynolds has promised Sinn Fein 'a seat at the conference table' once there is 'a cessation of violence'. He refrained from saying 'a permanent cessation' or 'an unconditional cessation'. So a ceasefire will do. On that basis, the head of the elected government in the republic concedes 'conference' status to Sinn Fein, which has not, in recent years, managed to get a single representative elected to the Dail.

Through its traditional pseudonymous spokesman 'P O'Neill', the Provisional IRA itself has extended what it calls 'a guarded welcome' to Hume- Adams. The whole thing is an affair of 'guarded welcomes'. Mr Adams has extended one of those to Mr Reynolds (for a defence of the irredentist articles in the republic's constitution) and another to Dick Spring (for entertaining the idea of joint administration in Northern Ireland).

So we now have a phenomenon unprecedented since the Irish state came into being 72 years ago. That phenomenon is pan-nationalist consensus, extending from the government in the republic (with a cowed and moralised opposition), through the SDLP and Sinn Fein, right out to the Provisional IRA itself.

Those of us who have been criticising the Hume-Adams consensus in two of the Dublin newspapers, were warned last weekend to keep our mouths shut. The warning was delivered by Brian Lenihan, chairman of the all-party parliamentary committee on foreign affairs. He was undoubtedly speaking for the Irish government.

John Major at Blackpool did not sound as if he were about to give ground before the Hume-Adams consensus. He spoke as chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party: the official title of the party, dating from 1886, but one not often heard in recent years. In Ireland, people - both nationalist and unionist - tend to discount statements by British politicians about Ireland.

Personally, I believe this one, and I also believe that the Hume-Adams bandwagon, formidable though it seems at present in Ireland, will get nowhere, politically. Consequently, if there is a ceasefire, it will break down. It would be foolish to predict the political consequences of that.

But of one thing I feel fairly sure. The Irish politicians concerned will have cause to regret their present flirtation with the Provisional IRA, which will turn on them savagely once they fail to deliver.

(Photograph omitted)