By John Kelly
British Northern Ireland secretaries of state have rarely earned kudos from Irish nationalists. But Mo Mowlam is an exception. She has learned to judge the Northern situation quite astutely. Her telling phrase that "life in Northern Ireland is sometimes not as straightforward as it would be elsewhere" can serve as the definitive description of the place.
It is certainly not straightforward so far as Ed Moloney, Northern Editor of the Sunday Tribune, is concerned. He faces the prospect of imprisonment because of his refusal to hand over notes of an interview he had with one of the prime suspects in the killing 10 years ago of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.
After the arrest of William Stobie last June in connection with the shooting, Moloney wrote an article quoting from an interview he had conducted with him.
RUC officers insisted that his notes should be handed over to the court and got an order to that effect. Moloney, who is very likely to become a considerable cause celebre in the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland, continues to make it clear that he will not comply, arguing that it is not his business to do the work of the police.
He claims that he cannot give his notes to the Steven’s inquiry, which is investigating the various investigations that have already been carried out
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into the murder, because it would compromise the journalistic profession. He also claims that the decision that he should comply with the order is "highly questionable."
Amnesty International, the National Union of Journalists and Human Rights Watch have taken up the case.
The order for the release of the notes was made under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a law so draconian in character that it has engendered many serious complaints, especially from Irish people traveling between the UK and Ireland. Many have often been held for the maximum detention periods without ever being charged.
Moloney realizes, just as does every journalist who has ever filed even one paragraph from Northern Ireland, and just as Mowlam herself realizes, that the North is a different place. This is a fact of life that UUP leader David Trimble and his colleagues, especially Jeffrey Donaldson, do not want to seem to acknowledge.
The only way to implement the peace process is to deal with it pragmatically. Absolutes, based on dubious political ideology, will only destroy it. If it falls, the turmoil in the North will probably turn out to be more vicious than what has happened previously.
Is this really what any responsible party or person in the North is prepared to contemplate?
Too often, the bigger picture in the North is obfuscated for political reasons by details that are trivial in the wider context.
For example, the Steven’s inquiry is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation into the inquiries carried out after the Finucane shooting. Now, instead of getting on with the job, it runs the risk of being sidetracked into a major human-rights controversy, namely the Moloney affair.
In similar fashion, the unionists have continued to stubbornly highlight the problem of IRA arms decommissioning, obviously for their own internal political reasons, to the extent that the peace process has been frozen and is in danger of ultimate failure.
Is it a risk that they should be allowed to take in deference to the large all-island vote in favor of the Good Friday peace agreement?
The vast majority of people on the island wants permanent peace in the North. They also want to see the gun taken permanently out of the equation. The only way of achieving this aspiration is for all of the parties involved to sit down at the same table to get on with the task of running the Northern Assembly.
Decommissioning is just a side issue, especially since the final report of the Patten Commission into the future role of the RUC has not yet been issued.
Anybody with a titter of wit will realize that the Provisional IRA, for all sorts of obvious historical reasons, regards the RUC as its armed enemy. Any politician who has ever scanned the recent history of the North with the slightest of interest will be forced to conclude that the police force is not acknowledged as being independent by the sizable nationalist population.
Whether it is independent or not is irrelevant. All that matters is that it just is not accepted, as presently constituted by a large section of the population.
The IRA will not go away for good unless it becomes clear that nationalists no longer want it. They will continue to lean on it as their last recourse against loyalist violence until something better replaces it. These are simple pragmatic facts and the unionists have just got to recognize them as such if they are serious about the implementing the peace agreement.
By the same token, they must also accept that any assembly that may emerge, will be useless without the participation of Sinn Fein, just as worthless as it would be without their own presence.
Without question, unionists like Trimble and Donaldson have good arguments to make in relation to the IRA cease-fire. They were handed them on a plate when the organization shot one man dead and then threatened teenagers with their lives unless they left the North for good.
The shades of Fascism revealed by both actions is not one that bodes well for the people of Ireland.
But Mowlam and some of the more enlightened politicians have not allowed such dangerous actions to distract their attention from the bigger picture, the final peace and a peaceful settlement.
They recognize that the influence of the IRA will be eroded only when it is made manifestly clear that it is no longer regarded as being necessary within Northern nationalist areas. That will not come about until life — and death — within Northern Ireland become just as straightforward, to use Mowlam’s word, as elsewhere.
The biggest test that former U.S. Senator George Mitchell has yet had to face awaits him on his return to Ireland this week.