Tell us the war is over!


Perhaps now, the Ulster Unionists will realise the enormity of the situation they have brought about. Their objective was to force Tony Blair to move an exclusion notice in the Assembly against Sinn Fein and then during the subsequent debate hope that the SDLP would vote with them, bringing back something reminiscent of majority rule and turning the Northern Assembly into the old Stormont.

Blindness to political reality informed much of their thinking. Certainly, back in 1999 they might have had some cause for hope. David Trimble had been elected First Minister and Seamus Mallon Deputy First Minister a year earlier. For the next eighteen months Trimble refused to allow the other ministries to be filled until the IRA began decommissioning. Seamus Mallon guaranteed Trimble that he would move to exclude Sinn Fein if republicans did not fulfil their obligations. But that was then and this is now.

Did Tony Blair refuse this week to do David Trimble’s bidding because he likes Gerry Adams and can’t stand Trimble? Hardly. Had Sinn Fein been a weaker party, had the SDLP done better at the polls, the new SDLP leader just might have been tempted to go down the road of exclusion. But last year’s general election results changed that, and basic arithmetic stayed Blair’s hand. Those thousands of people who opted for Sinn Fein over the SDLP, and made it the larger party, materially changed the political landscape and added real muscle to the negotiating position of the nationalist community. Where the SDLP has traditionally settled for less, Sinn Fein has robustly demanded nothing less than full rights.

Once Tony Blair decided not to introduce an exclusion motion against Sinn Fein it was obvious that he would move to suspend the Assembly. The one crumb of comfort the Ulster Unionist Party has is that it can face Assembly elections (should they be called) claiming that it has acted ‘morally’ and confronted the ‘duplicitous’ Republican Movement.

It is debatable if politics - or peace, for that matter - can work circumscribed by dubious, subjective notions of what is ‘moral’ or ‘principled’, rather than freed through a degree of pragmatism and flexibility. The taxes paid by pacifists support a government maintaining a nuclear weapons capability. The taxes of pro-life citizens support abortion in health services. Society is a complex machine, full of contradictions and double-standards, its cogs oiled by hypocrisy and requiring compromises. Voters for a particular party endorse along with their preferred policies others which are anathema - though opting out of those policies, comforted by self-deception. After being elected parties often deviate from their manifesto pledges and - depending on context and the legitimacy of the departure - their supporters will either forgive them or reject them.

Sinn Fein’s vote went up after the first ceasefire. It increased even when the IRA ended that ceasefire with the explosion at Canary Wharf. It has grown after the Florida gun-running trial, and, after the Colombian and Castlereagh allegations. It will increase again because nationalists recognise that it is working for peace, not war.

Republicans are sitting in an Assembly they never wanted. The British government never gave a declaration of intent to withdraw. There is still a heavy British army presence in some nationalist areas. The police have not been reformed. The equality and justice issues have yet to be resolved. But do you throw the head up, become exasperated or disillusioned and walk out, the way unionists have over not getting all their own way? No, you get on with the business of making peace.

Unionists never wanted to share power. It must be extremely hard for people who established their own state (with the might of Britain), had their own paramilitary police and government, and who were raised in supremacist politics for so long to share power with even Castle Catholics never mind those ‘who ain’t house-trained’. True, the IRA, because it exists, does not make it any easier for unionists. But that is life.

Is the demand for IRA disbandment made by unionists because they have a legitimate fear that the IRA is preparing for a return to armed struggle or is keeping its options open? Or is the demand a mere ploy, because unionists know that it cannot be met and thus improves the chances of them achieving their objective of a unionist government, with a few Uncle Toms of Marks about the place?

The IRA re-emerged in 1969 and re-armed because the unionist institutions of the state threatened, abused and attacked nationalists. It obviously continues to exist because nationalists still feel vulnerable. But it can only return to armed struggle if the institutions and forces of the state attack nationalists or deny them their rights, which begs the question of unionists and the British: Is the war over?

And if it is over, why do you want the Special Branch? Why do you not make the police service acceptable to nationalists? Why are the forces you support still bugging houses and cars, collecting files, gathering intelligence, targeting republicans, recruiting informers? Is it that old habits die hard?

Can you guarantee us that you will not go back to justifying and being cheer leaders for the proscribing of political parties, the internment of your political opponents, censorship, the ill-treatment of prisoners, shoot-to-kill operations, the use of super grasses, excusing collusion? And can you assure us that you will cease your double-standards which give political cover and thus encouragement to loyalist paramilitaries?

Can you give us one good reason why we should share power with you?

Because you have a past does not mean that you cannot have a future.

Here is the hand of friendship. Tell us that the war is over.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison