By John Kelly
It has been a very strange week in Ireland. We seem to have dispensed with some of the riveting trivia. The twin tribunals proceeding in Dublin Castle have disappeared from the headlines and the airwaves. Monica Lewinsky, she of the lips that launched a thousand quips, decorated front pages in Ireland and the UK. Briefly, we were enthralled with her first public TV interview. Ultimately, mainly because she was asked no hard questions, it later proved to be as boring as a piano in a brothel.
Finally, Ireland has reverted to much more serious things, subjects that will be of huge importance for all of the people of the island for generations to come.
Mo Mowlam, Northern Secretary, Bertie Ahern, David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and Gerry Adams, have finally got down to the business of heating up the dehydrated peace process. As we approach St. Patrick’s Day, a day that all of the main players concede will produce no breakthroughs, it is beginning to seem as though we may cut a deal after all.
It is a very naive person indeed who believes the pronouncements of politicians even if the politician in question is Mowlam, the British Northern secretary, who invariably seems to project both honesty and common sense, even when she flatly declares that there is no "Plan B."
She is being slightly disingenuous, of course. There is a "Plan B." It is an intrinsic ingredient of the Good Friday agreement. If the Northern parties cannot come to an agreement, direct rule will continue. The big difference is that it will be direct rule with direct input from the Irish government. Naturally, the unionists would not favor such a development. There was, after all, a distinct stick-and-carrot approach in the agreement.
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People like the Northern First Minister Trimble, perhaps even Ken Maginnis to a greater extent, are perfectly conscious of the realities. No matter how much they huff and puff about decommissioning, they will not wish to blow the possibility of an internal settlement. The alternatives are simply too awful.
Similarly, the majority of IRA members are absolutely aware of the inevitable consequences if an agreement is not reached. They know that what went before will not amount to a tin of beans, bad and all as it was. If there is a reversion to violence, it may be the worst the province has ever experienced, perhaps a sectarian war.
Hundreds, mainly the innocent, could die as the result of such a conflict. This is why Mowlam desperately attempted to concentrate minds when she declared, however incorrectly, that there is no plan B. She is trying to make it clear that failure to reach settlement is the greatest danger of all.
So, what is the problem?
The IRA leadership is perfectly aware that it will have to decommission arms at some juncture. It is reluctant to do so because the majority of its members still harbor deep suspicions about the real British intent. Many also suspect that the Irish government is so keen to bring about peace, however superficial, that it will sell them out to the loyalists once and for all.
For their part, the loyalists, however deeply their unionism is shaded, are wary that the ultimate aim of the peace agreement so far as London is concerned is to dump them into a united Ireland.
While both sectors of the Northern population, as revealed in poll after poll, are deeply suspicious of the real intention of the government to which they show putative allegiance, that degree of suspicion is as nothing compared to the antagonism each harbors against the other.
Trimble has to deal with considerable personal opposition within his own party. He is fully aware that loyalist dissidence is not only expressed by the Rev. Ian Paisley and the DUP. He also has to grapple with the recalcitrance of his own party members, people who believe that consorting with Sinn Fein is about as sensible as supping with the devil.
Adams has similar, even more serious problems. He now faces a death threat from republicans who feel that anything less than total British withdrawal from the North and ultimate Irish unity is a sell-out.
There are seemingly peripheral happenings that tend to buttress their case. For example, there was the recent disclosure, which did not really surprise anybody who has even the most trivial knowledge of the North, that British Army intelligence operatives colluded with loyalist paramilitaries, even to the extent of passing on personnel files on suspected IRA members.
Many of these were later blown away.
Neither were many republicans very surprised when a Belfast High Court judge refused to reveal the amount of money paid to Brian Nelson, the intelligence agent alleged to have colluded with loyalists in the murder of Pat Finucane in 1989. He was a solicitor who defended many republicans in many high-profile cases.
The more militant republicans will simply sneer at such developments, arguing that it only proves what everybody in the North knows. There is one law for "them" and another for "us." The definition of "them" and "us" is interchangeable, according to whatever side of the divide people is on.
There have been some positive developments as well. The final acquittal of Private Lee Clegg in a Belfast court would have sparked rioting in Belfast’s nationalist areas only a few months ago.
There is now only one path republicans can take. There has to be a timetable for decommissioning. And it has to be arranged through the office of Gen. John de Chastelain.
The British — and the unionists — must understand, if they do not already, that Adams has to make the hardest sale.
While there may no question of a major breakthrough in Washington, or indeed anywhere else in the U.S. during the St. Patrick’s festivities, leading government representatives, Irish, British and American, must continue to hammer home the point that any supposed alternatives to the peace process will be painful for all.