Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Pat Stack

Major has gone, and good riddance. There were two particularly daft claims made for him while he was prime minister. One was that he was a man of integrity. This always struck me as amazing he did after all preside over the most corrupt and sleazy British government of this century.

The second was that, whatever his other failings, he would be recorded in history as the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland. This claim went up in a big bang at Canary Wharf. Not only had Major failed to win his chapter in history, his own actions had done more than any other to ensure the IRA ceasefire would come to an end.

His desperation to cling on to office meant that he obeyed every whim of the sectarian Unionist politicians. He placed obstacle after obstacle in the way of Irish Republicans. In doing so he made it all but impossible even for that section of the Republican movement which did seem to want to move away from armed struggle to hold the line with any credibility.

Of course there were underlying questions of immense importance that were always likely to prove very problematic for the whole process, but Major ensured it all went up in smoke before a serious Republican foot had been placed under the table.

Now, with Major gone as with so many questions he left behind renewed hope and optimism are being vested in the new administration, and its fresh faced, smiley leader. So great is Blair's majority, so different does the new administration appear to be to the fallen arrogant fools who have been in office for the last 18 years, that hopes are high of life getting better.

Included in this optimism appears to be the question of Ireland. Will Blair deliver where Major failed, is a question many are asking. Indeed, Blair's first major speech on the subject as prime minister, delivered in Belfast, won fulsome praise from the Irish government and John Hume of the moderate nationalist SDLP.

Blair appears to be hinting that there will be talks with the Republicans without the infamous precondition of decommissioning. Nevertheless it is hard to understand the enthusiasm with which the speech was greeted. Blair used the occasion once again to assure everyone that the union (in other words the division of Ireland) would continue. Not just that, he went on to state that there seemed no prospect of a united Ireland in his lifetime, and furthermore expressed himself an enthusiast for the union.

Now, if I were Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness, I would find this very puzzling. Their stated aim is a united Ireland and, until very recently, they have been enthusiasts for winning that united Ireland through armed struggle. Of late, though, they have tried to persuade the IRA that a united Ireland, or at least significant steps towards it, can be brought about by peaceful negotiations. So while Blair urges them to board the 'talks train' before it leaves the station, he also seems to indicate there is absolutely nothing to talk about.

Indeed, the petty barring of Adams and McGuinness from using parliamentary facilities, even though they were democratically elected, hardly seems an encouragement. Nor does it seem to have occurred to Blair just what impact his speech will have had on the nationalist population of Northern Ireland. The genuine joy with which the vast majority of them welcomed the IRA ceasefire was in no small part because they believed not only that violence would end, but that significant moves would be made to do away with the sectarian six county state on which the union is based.

Tony Blair may have noticed that a growing number of nationalists voted in two Sinn Fein MPs at the general election, and that since his speech Sinn Fein has had spectacular successes in the local government elections, especially in Belfast. For the first time in history, there is the prospect of a nationalist mayor in the former citadel of Unionism.

You would think that even for someone with as profound a lack of any sense of history as Blair it would be obvious that passing a life sentence of the Northern Ireland state on such people, and announcing you were enthusiastically doing so, would be a real slap in the face for them.

How the nationalists feel when yet another British prime minister comes along to reassure the Unionists will be obvious. Once again they must wonder, was it us who ran this state in a sectarian manner, making people second class citizens on the grounds of religion? Was it us who rigged the electoral system to ensure that even where our religious opponents were in a majority they would still lose? Is it us who march every summer to rub the noses of people of a different religion in the dirt? Did we set up a sectarian police force? Did we refuse to grant civil rights to those of a different faith?

The answer, of course, is no. The Unionists did all that. Yet here comes this fresh faced, new prime minister behaving as all the others have done by ignoring the past, ignoring our present plight and throwing back in our faces all our wishes and aspirations. One of those wishes is peace, but that will never come when the same old litanies and sermons are being preached, even when the preacher appears to represent all that is 'new'.

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