Tony, abandon the Emerald Isle

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The Independent Online
SO, WE ARE told, the IRA may be about to announce a ceasefire. An impermanent IRA ceasefire will happen if American innocents convince the IRA that President Clinton will pay a fat price for being able to represent himself as a peace-broker, and if the IRA thinks the British government weak enough to respond with some concessions. It will happen when - and only when - the IRA has murdered enough Protestant activists to ensure that loyalist paramilitaries go on killing.

If it does happen, the fissures in the Irish government will widen, with Albert Reynolds's more realistic deputy, Dick Spring, trying to prevent his boss from falling into his usual swamp of gullibility. In Britain, the Conservatives will probably be united in recognising the ceasefire offer as a sham. But what will the Labour Party do?

Its activists are split into three tendencies, which I classify as Republican Chic, Emerald Isle and Sensible.

The Republican Chic group includes Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and dear old Ken Livingstone, looking cuddly in a recent issue of the leading Irish immigrants' newspaper, the Irish Post, beside a member of Sinn Fein. The group's foot-soldiers are a small number of bitter and disaffected second-generation Irish and the usual loonies of the hard left. They see the dreary Gerry Adams as a visionary: they would like to hand the whole island of Ireland over to him tomorrow, along with billions of pounds to be paid in perpetuity to atone for colonial crimes of the past. They are a group of performing fleas who no longer matter.

The Emerald Isle tendency has been solidly in control of Labour policy since 1961. It shares the romantic Catholic nationalist vision of a united Ireland that the southern Irish abandoned a long time ago - all harps, round towers, wolfhounds and colleens. Its standard-bearer is the spokesman on Northern Ireland since 1987, Kevin McNamara. To the vast majority of Labour Party politicians, activists and supporters, Ireland is a ghastly bore which they thankfully leave to Kevin, second-generation Irish.

Personally popular and an indefatigable performer on what is popularly known as the 'bacon and cabbage circuit', Mr McNamara appears in the Irish Post more often even than Mr Livingstone. Unfortunately he peddles the oxymoronic policy - bringing about a united Ireland by consent - that was cobbled together in 1981 to fight off the Republican Chic brigade and which is unrealistic to the point of being meaningless. When Labour comes to power, the theory goes, the Unionists, moved by Mr McNamara's rhetoric, will let the scales fall from their eyes and James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley will start taking lessons in set- dancing. It is a policy four-square in line with the oldest tradition of old-fashioned sectarian Irish nationalism: ignore the inconvenient Prods and they may just go away or give in. Well they won't and they don't. That's how we got partition in the first place.

The third lot are the Sensible tendency, who are very close to the thinking of the southern Irish Left: that what matters is not a united Ireland but a peaceful and democratic Ireland.

They want Labour to be even- handed and accept that there can be no settlement that is not acceptable to both nationalists and Unionists. 'Forget the grand slam, the quick fix, and go instead for a process of reform,' said a Sensible leader in a recent New Statesman and Society. 'The way forward is through devolving power to the people, beefing up anti-discrimination legislation, encouraging power-sharing, developing north-south co-operation and introducing measures to stimulate economic and social regeneration.'

Sensible tendency MPs such as Kate Hoey and Nick Raynsford believe it is democratically imperative that Labour should - like the Conservatives - allow people in Northern Ireland to join the party. Since the Social Democratic and Labour Party is tribal and socially conservative, socialists are virtually disfranchised.

Along with the Emerald Isle policy, Tony Blair inherits a contradictory commitment to the principles of the Downing Street Declaration - which rules out any predetermined solutions - along with a subterranean war between the three tendencies. The Sensible tendency has been given favourable coverage in recent weeks in the Guardian, Tribune and the Spectator as well as the New Statesman. The Emerald Isle has counter-attacked with a recent article in the Irish Post investigating what it described as a 'covert campaign' against Mr McNamara and describing 'a Labour groundswell' against the so- called Unionist veto.

Mr Blair needs to apply himself pretty quickly to sorting out the mess. He could start by talking to the new Irish Left, who have painfully reinvented themselves in recent years. Then he might get some open minds to work on devising a policy on Ireland that does good rather than harm. If, as he said in his election statement, Mr Blair really believes that the Northern Ireland conflict is 'the gravest and most protracted problem facing the British and Irish peoples,' he should do something about it - fast.

Beatrix Campbell is away.