The visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Ireland this week raised the hopes of many that some move was under way to restore the power-sharing government and the other institutions that were suspended on Feb. 11 when Britain reimposed direct rule.
The prime minister’s trip to Northern Ireland will be the first he has made since last July, when his dash across the Irish sea in an attempt to get the Unionists to go into government with Sinn Fein proved so dismal a failure that most lost hope that it would ever succeed. They were proved wrong, but only temporarily, as the collapse of February unfortunately demonstrated.
This time, however, Blair is not, according to the British government, arriving with any "blueprint" or great expectations of getting the institutions up and running. He is merely on a "listening" mission, to hear each side tell its story as to why political progress has once more broken down.
Whether that needed his actual presence in Northern Ireland is another matter. By now, he must know quite well how the various players have positioned themselves in this game. But Blair undoubtedly recognizes that things have reached an important juncture — all he has to do is to look at the calendar to realize that. It has been two years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, and it is just about one month away from its deadline for the completion of paramilitary arms decommissioning.
In other words, these are dates that resonate — unfortunately, more with despair than hope at the moment.
That could change, however. At the Sinn Fein ard fheis of two weeks ago, a poll showed that the overwhelmingly majority of delegates said they did not want a return to the armed campaign and the failed methods of the past. They recognized that the war is over, whether the IRA admits it or not. That is the reality. Indeed, the ard fheis spent more time debating the party’s political strategy in the South than it did on the matter of disarmament in the North. That is a sign of the way things have drastically changed within the republican movement. As it plots its future course, armed struggle is no long part of it. That is the new reality.
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Of course, in Northern Ireland politics is always slow to catch up with reality. In this case, the Unionists are refusing to recognize the reality that the IRA’s war is over, while republicans are refusing to admit it, at least publicly. Blair will not have wasted his trip if he, along with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, can impress upon the players there the absurdity of this situation.
Clarity is courage. It is time for the republican movement to show it and for the Unionists to accept it.