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THE PROCESS OF REPUBLICAN GLOOM
Anthony McIntyre
Parliamentary Brief
March 1998

Like the mirage in the desert of a water filled oasis, peace seems perpetually to beckon yet remain beyond the grasp of the Northern Irish population. With two further killings in as many days the perennial element of destabilisation which shadows every thing political in the North came to the fore. The roulette of blame has stopped spinning and the pointer has settled on the dark green square. Republicans have been told that the colour of their money no longer gains them admission to the casino of crisis creation at Hotel Stormont, or at any rate for seventeen days.

While their inclusion can hardly secure a republican outcome their expulsion serves no purpose other than to appease the functionally nonsensical procedural hoops (as evidenced by the �six weeks in the sin bin penalty� for the UDP) that players are meant to jump through in deference to the pretence that Northern Irish politics should be conducted in a �British manner�. When will the British Government accept that Northern Irish society is a glass house of political violence in which all the occupants including itself throw stones? The basis for normal rules of political process does not exist. And if it did the talks would never have been needed to begin with.

The significance attached in the minds of those overseeing the talks to who was responsible for the deaths of the drugs dealer, Brendan Campbell, or the Loyalist death squad member, Robert Duggan, should only be secondary to the task of ensuring that no such actions are repeated. And has the expulsion of republicans achieved that? More likely than not it will generate a disillusionment at republican base level leading to a demand for a return to war which the republican leadership has successfully resisted up to now even if, ominously enough, it has no influence with those responsible for the Moira and Portadown bombings. And even if the likelihood is that any such war is one that can not be won and can most certainly be lost would the death and destruction in the intervening period be a price worth paying just to be able to say to republicans �it�s our ball, our game and only we shall play�? The unionists alone would seem to think so.

And unionist behaviour throughout has had a sharp impact on many republicans, and perhaps more than any other factor has, for many, shaped their view of the peace process. The West Belfast Sinn Fein councillor Michael Ferguson has been and remains a firm supporter of the republican leadership�s peace strategy. With a strong left wing background Ferguson seems above all concerned with the welfare of those working class nationalists for whom he has fought night and day to represent. He is scathing of the unionists, commenting that from the outset they saw and feared the potential in the peace process to bring about change. Consequently, Ferguson claims, they set about intimidating both the British and Irish governments within the process while on the outside �their killers murdered people�, responding as they have always done historically. He feels that the task facing republicans is one of pushing on relentlessly to highlight the failure of those not as committed to peace as his own party. In spite of everything Ferguson remains confident that the republican analysis will be substantiated and that it is this rather than any killings which prompts the unionists to seek the exclusion of republicans from the talks.

Across the city, Ferguson�s councillor colleague Sean Hayes shares his politics but not his optimism. From his constituency office in South Belfast Hayes argues that the peace strategy has exposed the intransigence and hypocrisy of the unionists but to no avail. The British Government has done little to dissuade them, allowing a vacuum to develop in which one of his constituents was recently shot dead by loyalist death squads. His wrath is directed in equal measure against both the government and the unionists. He feels that London and Dublin are primarily concerned with boxing republicans into a corner and that the safeguarding of nationalist lives is not a major priority. Unlike Ferguson, Hayes�s confidence in the peace process has nose-dived over the past three years, and he now concludes that the peace strategy was a wasted opportunity by republicans. It has dissipated the radical energy of a republican base which could have been directed to a more assertive and productive politics, concerned less with the talks process which has led to inertia on the ground and focused more on re-asserting the traditional republican analysis.

Hayes�s pessimism is articulated even more forcefully by Meg, one of his Sinn Fein workers. Her view is that the talks process is going no where because it is inherently stacked against the nationalists. And she sees no difference between what is on offer now to nationalists and that offered in 1974 with Sunningdale, commenting ruefully �all the deaths, suffering and imprisonment could have been spared if we were to have chosen this path in the seventies�. Meg has no faith in constitutional nationalism feeling that ultimately the outcome will be more Hume/Trimble than Hume/Adams. Her parting comment was that because the state is so anti-nationalist the only way agreement could be reached would be if the republican leadership signed up to something behind the backs of the base which the latter would never agree to if aware in advance. And would it? Meg does not discount the possibility, arguing that because nobody on the ground knows what is happening there may be a tendency at leadership level because of its involvement in the talks to drift away from the republican roots and their concerns.

Back in West Belfast, in a tiny house far removed from the pomp of Stormont, Joe, a former IRA prisoner is as dispirited as his colleagues in the South of the city. For him, the talks process has since Christmas taken a definite spin against republicans, bringing to the fore all the contradictions as he sees them of the republican strategy. Like Meg, he fears that the constitutional nationalist axis of Dublin and the SDLP is preparing to kick Sinn Fein off the bus and conclude its own sordid deal with the British and unionists. He contends that the bulk of Sinn Fein criticism is directed against Strand one of the talks when in fact the whole package is partitionist. And for this reason John Hume is so fundamentally at ease with the way things are shaping up -�after all, it is his baby�.

Perhaps surprisingly, strong support for the talks process comes from the man long regarded by many as being both the most militant and successful former chief of staff of the IRA. Sean McStiofain, his physical attributes ravished by illness, remains mentally very lucid and sharp. His advice to the present republican leadership is to �stay in there, putting the republican alternative�. While instinctively feeling that constitutional nationalism will sell nationalism in general short, at the end of the day McStiofain argues, if nothing else is achieved the flexibility of republicans and their willingness to engage will stand to their good in future times.

Within the nationalist community but outside the ranks of republicans, it is commonplace to detect despair. Lee, a mother of five, speaks passionately of her desire for peace, but her voice loses any intensity when asked if she can foresee it. �No. They�ll never agree. There is too much hatred. I live in fear, wondering if my husband is safe at work, if my kids can escape all this�. Vehemently opposed to all violence Lee is typical of many West Belfast parents who themselves have no memory of pre-1969 and who see their children grow up in a cauldron of simmering menace, and who can just about tolerate the simmer but dread the boil.

For many like Lee, the thunderous roars of Portadown and Moira are not the sounds of the political discourse they long to hear. But the meaningful talks that should replace them seem a long way off. And in the North of Ireland silence is always punctured with a bang.

 

 

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