Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Why Major didn't give peace a chance

The demonisation of Gerry Adams in the British press

The Irish peace process was sacrificed in the interests of the short term survival of John Major's doomed regime. The countdown to the IRA Docklands bombing was determined by the divisions and disarray within the Tory ranks.

When on 24 January John Major responded to the Mitchell Commission's report on the decommissioning of arms, he announced that prior to any all party talks there would be elections to a new Northern Ireland assembly. This was something that the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, had been pushing for four months. John Bruton's government in Dublin was given just one hour's notice of this major shift in British policy.

John Major had effectively moved the goal posts. The prospect of direct elections to a Northern Ireland assembly brought howls of anguish from the Dublin government, John Hume of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. It represented the first occasion when the Unionists had succeeded in having a say on Britain's Northern Ireland policy since 1971 when they insisted on the introduction of internment without trial.

To understand why Major was so ready to appease the Unionists and to jeopardise the peace process, two events must be borne in mind.

The first was the Tories' defeat over the introduction of VAT on domestic fuel bills on 6 December 1994. It was clear to Major that he could no longer rely on a majority in parliament. The Ulster Unionists had joined with Tory rebels in voting with the opposition. So Major moved to ensure he could call on the Unionists' votes.

It was then that the British government first demanded that the IRA must 'decommission' arms prior to Republicans being admitted to all-party talks. Under the Downing Street Declaration of Xmas 1993 entry to these talks had depended solely on parties (clearly Sinn Fein in this case) proving 'that they intended to abide by the democratic process'. Decommissioning had never been mentioned in the secret negotiations between the Republicans and the British in 1992 and 1993 or in the talks between Major and the Irish prime minister prior to the Downing Street Declaration.

Such one sided disarming has never been demanded in previous conflicts in Algeria or Vietnam, or in peace negotiations in South Africa, the Middle East or former Yugoslavia. In Northern Ireland there are 130,000 legally held weapons, overwhelmingly in Protestant hands. Each member of the 32,000 strong security forces has access to personal weapons which creates alarm even in moderate Catholic circles. Last June Martin McGuinness told a major Republican rally that the decommissioning ploy threatened to wreck the peace process.

The second turning point also came last June with Major's resignation as Tory leader and his subsequent re-election. To secure this, Major had to make peace with the increasingly sceptical right wing of the Tory Party, including a rump who maintain close links with the Unionists.

Within days of his re-election the release was sanctioned of Private Lee Clegg just one week before 12 July, the height of Northern Ireland's marching season. That was followed by police forcing though an Apprentice Boys march round the walls of Derry City after they had been refused access for years.

Anyone concerned for the peace process can have drawn little heart from the presence alongside Sir Patrick Mayhew on Major's new cabinet committee on Northern Ireland of Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Lord Cranbourne. The Tory right, backed up by the security forces, now had a substantial say over negotiations.

The truth is that since the beginning of the peace process Britain has acted to drag proceedings back. As early as 10 May 1993 the IRA offered a complete ceasefire which the British refused to act on. After the Downing Street Declaration it was several weeks before Westminster offered any concessions--lifting the exclusion order banning Gerry Adams from Britain, decreasing daylight army patrols and opening some cross border roads. The Northern Ireland Office and the security forces opposed the latter move and had to be bribed by the construction of permanent army forts at Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton.

Major rang President Clinton twice to prevent Gerry Adams getting a visa to the US and when eventually Adams made it to the White House, Major would not answer Clinton's calls for a week.

When John Bruton raised the potential damage the release of Lee Clegg might cause, he was, in the words of one Irish aide, 'slapped down' and told it was a matter for the British alone.

All this led one pro-Unionist Tory MP to tell the Financial Times following the breakdown of the ceasefire, 'We should not have made prior decommissioning of arms such a bald precondition. We're not talking about appeasement, but we gained little by boxing Adams so firmly into a corner.'

Another Tory backbencher told the same paper that Major was 'a prisoner of the 20 or so hardline Unionists within the party who won't move unless David Trimble says it's okay to do so.'

Throughout this sorry saga Tony Blair has ensured that Labour shadows the Tories at every turn. Blair immediately endorsed Major's commitment to an ,elective process' prior to all-party talks. The next day John Hume walked out of a meeting with Blair and was openly criticised by a 'source close to Blair'.

As the 20th century closes, Ireland occupies none of the imperial central importance that it did for Britain at the start of this century. Prior to his election to the premiership in 1990 John Major had not once set foot in Northern Ireland. Once the Tories and the Unionists were united in a sacred covenant and in a common party. Today the British ruling class see the Unionists as expendable. Dublin journalist Tim Pat Coogan recalls a conversation at the premier of a play about the sacrifice of the Ulster Division on the first day of the Somme offensive during the First World War. The wife of the British ambassador to Ireland, asked for her opinion on the sacrifice of her 'fellow countrymen', replied, 'Them! I've nothing to do with them. That tribe.'

What Whitehall does not seem to understand--and nor does Blair--is that many ordinary people can see through the sheer cynicism of Tory policy in Ireland.
Chris Bambery


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