Without Gerry, they'll need a miracle

From this point on, talks on Northern Ireland are just about politics. They won't bring peace
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The Independent Online
So the peace process marches on. Like some giant robot whose head has been blown off, it keeps going, towards more summits, new documents, a date for all-party talks, referendums and elections. But what is the point? How can one have an "except-the-IRA" peace process? Is this not a giant political oxymoron, with legs?

To ask these questions isn't to sneer at the original process or the motives of politicians who risked a lot to keep it going. But what is happening now in London and Dublin has the feel of displacement activity.

Politicians are used to saying they will not be "deflected" by terrorism. By instinct, waking up to the news of another bomb, they and their officials return to work and carry on just as before.

In its way this is an admirably stoic response to murder. But the truth is that this has been a process so much about the terrorists, so intertwined with attempts to read the thoughts of IRA commanders and their sympathisers, that it must be deflected, or at least seriously rethought, after the first round of London attacks.

What is happening is more an exercise in democratic defiance than a living strategy. Talks that exclude Sinn Fein and therefore any conversation with republican terrorism may do many useful things. They may help marginalise the violent republican core, shrink-wrapping the IRA community, making it seem bizarre rather than romantic. But what they cannot do is bring peace.

Even now, there is a whiff of a hint of a mere suspicion of the ghost of a chance that the original process could survive - but that is probably putting it optimistically. There are signs coming from Ireland that the IRA might be prepared to stop murdering again if a date were set for all- party talks, and if these were open to any party winning an electoral mandate next month, which also affirmed the principles of the Mitchell Commission.

Getting Sinn Fein adherence to the Mitchell principles would be a big advance. These include not only agreement to exclusively peaceful methods and total disarmament but also an immediate end to punishment beatings. But Mitchell-plus-elections in return for British agreement to a date for talks isn't much more than the IRA has already rejected. So one must be highly sceptical.

The Unionists say there would have to be an end to beatings by the IRA and serious negotiations about decommissioning; it is not possible simply to "forget" the Docklands and Aldwych bombings and return to the status quo ante. But, at least in theory, there is a small area of possible agreement on which Sinn Fein and the Unionists could congregate; watched over perhaps by Senator Mitchell acting as go-between.

This is the area that British and Irish politicians are haggling about, speaking little in public, holding their breath. They know that if Gerry Adams is really out of the process, there is no process. Or rather, there may be a political process but there isn't a peace process. Yet for these ideas to produce serious political talks would be a miracle.

Unionists, whose scepticism is bone-deep, are sure the game is over and they are joined in that by a large proportion of Conservative politicians. At times, over the past few days, it has seemed as if John Major and his intimates are the last people in London who think it isn't.

If it is over, what then? One senior Conservative suggested recently that the IRA was now engaged in a 20-year strategy of what he called "incremental terrorism". There would be ceasefires, during which time republican demands would be moved forward politically; followed by a return to violence.

It is a bleak view. But we must admit the possibility of another long cycle of war and peacemaking, during which the IRA's old strategy of the "Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other" would be replaced by Semtex and round-table talks, used sequentially, not simultaneously. Another way of describing it would be, I suppose, "just-in-time terrorism".

On this reading, the Hume-Adams process, which originated as long ago as 1988-89, could eventually be reactivated. This time it may have been destroyed by the fall in Dublin of the wily and strongly nationalist Albert Reynolds, and his replacement by John Bruton, regarded by republicans as a quasi-Unionist himself. But, the Provos may mutter, better times are bound to come. Another Dublin government, another Prime Minister in Downing Street ...

This is not only evil, but hopeless, too. It implies that violence can be turned on and off and controlled in its effects by the republican high command - that mayhem can act as a biddable servant to politics. London is attacked while Northern Ireland remains quiet, thus avoiding any loyalist retaliation and preventing the alienation of ordinary nationalist voters who have come to enjoy the peace.

It doesn't work that way. The murder of shopkeepers or the maiming of tourists won't change the dynamics of British politics. It won't shift the Unionists and it won't shift Whitehall. There had been signs that this truth was now recognised widely in the republican movement. As Gerry Adams said in a too little-noticed aside recently, the past 20 years had shown that neither side was capable of militarily defeating the other. That was quite a comment: the leader of Sinn Fein saying that the IRA couldn't win.

Of course, they may believe this themselves and be driven by sheer belligerent fury to kill even so. That seems to me to be as likely a theory as a thought- through strategy of incremental terrorism.

And a return to violence is very hard to limit. The loyalist terrorists may be less capable than the IRA of complex operations but the minute they thought their old enemies were gaining any advantage by bombing London, they would return to the fray, either (with sick symmetry) hitting Dublin, or killing nearer home.

We are probably now in the final few weeks, or even days, in which John Major can utter the phrase "peace process", except in a merely historical way. Margaret Thatcher would already have formally buried it and announced, in effect, a return to war. There are senior Tories who are outraged that Mr Major hasn't done likewise.

But he is a different beast than she, refusing to quit when common sense says he should, devoting large amounts of time to an issue that will shift, at most, a few hundred votes at the general election. Guilt may play a part. Having lapsed into complacency earlier on, Major is doubtless right to throw himself into trying to revive the process.

Today it remains standing, held up by nothing more substantial than suspended disbelief, kept alive only by a general unwillingness to admit its death. And there may yet be a miracle on the way, as many people, including Major and Adams, ask themselves one final time whether they have done all they could. And optimism and energy remain admirable, right up to the end. And I'd love to look a fool by Easter. But the honourable gamble seems over.