Britain stalls on peace in Ireland

Issue 

Seventy days into the IRA cease-fire, and with the clock ticking to the 90-day deadline set by Britain for discussion with Sinn Fein, ZANNY BEGG talks to MARY NILUS, a Sinn Fein councillor for Derry and a delegate to the Irish Forum on Peace and Reconciliation, about the prospects for a resolution to Europe's longest war.

The announcement of the IRA cease-fire on the August 31 prompted a surge of optimism around the world. It was followed by a series of record firsts. On September 2 Martin McGuinness travelled to London to give his first TV interview signalling the end to a ban that has existed on Sinn Fein leaders visiting Britain for the last 20 years. On September 6, Gerry Adams became the first Sinn Fein Leader to met the Irish prime minister since the Irish state was founded. For the residents of Tyrone the cease-fire allowed the first legal opening of the road that connected them to Leitrim on the other side of the border.

But amidst the optimism and small changes, most of the big questions still demand answers. Key to the process remains Britain's intentions. But Britain is playing it both ways: on the one hand talking about talking with Sinn Fein and on the other reassuring the Loyalists that the Union Jack is theirs to keep.

According to Mary Nilus, the British are "barricading peace". The British government boycotted the opening session of the Peace and Reconciliation Forum, which is convened by the Irish government.

"The very basis of the peace process is all-inclusive dialogue", Nilus explained to Green Left Weekly, "and that means bringing together all the various political currents in the country to sit down and talk to each other. It is very disappointing that the British have refused to be part of this. At the moment the British have responded in a really petty way to the IRA cease-fire and the forum set up by [Irish Prime Minister] Albert Reynolds.

"They have also been dragging their heels on the joint working paper that the British and Irish governments are discussing. There are all sorts of rumours circulating at the moment. The people are asking, and quite rightly so: do the British really want peace?"

The optimism sparked by the cease-fire is tempered by experience. Nilus points out that although Sinn Fein and the Irish government and other nationalist parties are talking, real progress will be made only when dialogue is opened with Britain. "The British have never done an honourable thing in Ireland in their lives. One could not expect them to act with honour at this stage. But they cannot evade their responsibilities. They are the root cause of this conflict. They have to be part of the solution."

Ireland was artificially partitioned in 1921, to create a Protestant statelet that would remain loyal to England. Prior to 1921, English interference in Ireland stretches back to the 12th century with no century passing since then without rebellions, uprisings and wars as the Irish resisted foreign rule. In the 17th century the English deliberately planted Protestant settlers in Ulster to dilute Irish resistance. The Irish conflict is called the longest war because it has raged for over 800 years.

Britain's interests in Ireland have evolved over this time. In 1170, when Strongbow led the first expansionist foray into Ireland, the English were after land. Over the next few hundred years, Ireland became an agricultural export base for England. The English landlords' desire for profits was so ruthless that millions of Irish were left to die when the potato crop failed in 1845 while tonnes of food were still exported to England.

During the 19th century, textile and shipping industries began to develop in the north of Ireland. During the second world war the shipyard in Derry became particularly important for England and developed into a major naval base. British capital has made the most of the largely docile Protestant labour force in the north.

Since the "Troubles" began and British troops were deployed to prop up Protestant rule in 1969, British involvement in Ireland has become much more expensive; today it costs Britain œ4.5 million a year. In addition, there are hidden costs of up to œ75 million in MI5 surveillance of IRA activities.

Despite the millions of pounds expended, England has failed to quell the spirit of the nationalists and failed to defeat the IRA.

Since the IRA cease-fire was declared, there has been intense speculation about what the British now want in Ireland. Nilus believes the occupation of the north is largely political. "The week the cease-fire was declared, the Scottish Nationalist Party immediately said that they would like independence from Britain. Just two weeks ago the Welsh Nationalist Party met and said the same thing. I think one of the major problems for the Westminster government is that they have been scared. If they pull out of Ireland, then where next?

"They have declared that they have no selfish, strategic, economic or social reasons for remaining in the north of Ireland. Well if that's a fact, why don't they declare that also have no political interest in staying in Ireland and declare that they want to leave? But they haven't been able to say that and so we have to ask: what is their political interest? The answer to that is holding together the United Kingdom."

Holding together the United Kingdom may prove increasingly difficult. For a start, the consolidation of the European Union puts the pressure on Britain to resolve the conflict with its oldest colony. The European governments do not want to inherit the Irish "problem" with its accompanying civil unrest and political instability.

Secondly, the integration of European economies brings market pressure on the border that cuts Dublin off from Belfast. The giant accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand has been quoted as saying that the Dublin-Belfast business corridor needs massive improvements in road, rail and communication links. It may have been business interests that cut off the richer north from the agricultural south in 1921, but today the pressure from many businesses is for greater ease of movement and closer political links between the two halves of the island.

Thirdly, the international political climate is changing. With reference to the peace accord in Palestine and the non-racial elections in South Africa, Nilus explains, "People around the world are saying to Britain: what is the problem with this little island called Ireland? When will its troubles be resolved too?"

Finally, perhaps the most important factor is the high moral ground Sinn Fein has been able to win through its approach to the peace process. Sinn Fein is popular. Despite years of being labelled terrorists by the British and the conservative press, Sinn Fein commands respect in the north and increasingly in the south. It has also won the sympathy of people worldwide.

The political risks for Sinn Fein are high, however. High-profile delegations from the US may be flying into Belfast, but people on Falls Road are already talking about a peace dividend. The ability of Sinn Fein to deliver on this is hampered by the British government, and there are worrying signs that it will continue to play dirty.

According to Nilus, since the cease-fire the British have sent a new regiment of paratroopers into West Belfast. The Royal Marines have been sent into South Armagh. According to information sent to Green Left Weekly, the checkpoint on the Dervy-Donegal border has been reinforced and extended. Intense RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) patrols have been reported in County Down, Dungiven, County Derry and Tyrone.

Sinn Fein has launched a Peace Action Monitor, which has collected information on escalating harassment of the nationalist community. The coordinator of the committee, Barry McElduff, reported in An Phoblacht numerous cases of brutality towards Catholics by the RUC.

In Tyrone, RUC personnel fired plastic bullets at a crowd leaving Cookstown on October 23. Several people where injured in the upper body and head. In Derry, the RUC raided a nationalist home in Gobnascale at 6.30 in the morning, threatening to kill the father of the family and hanging a Union Jack over a religious icon before leaving. The father was later taken away to an interrogation centre.

Sinn Fein councillor Michael Ferguson was arbitrarily arrested on October 24 and taken to army barracks and verbally abused. A young man was brutally assaulted by the RUC on October 24 on Ardboe Road. He was later rushed to the casualty section at a nearby hospital.

Compounding the intimidation being experienced by nationalists on a daily level is a sense of disappointment about what the British are offering to Sinn Fein. Talks between Britain and Sinn Fein are expected before Christmas, but as yet no concrete promises have been made. Nilus says, "No progress has been made on talks between the British government and Sinn Fein. The British have put all these conditions on talks. We have said there can be no conditions on talks about peace.

"You have to look at this in context. The British government were talking to the IRA for two years until June last year. Now that the IRA has called a halt to hostilities, the British are refusing to talk to their political representative, Sinn Fein. We have declared our willingness to talk. They have to make the next move".

One of the questions still being debated is whether there will be an internal settlement for the north. John Major has repeatedly assured the Protestants that there will be a referendum within the north on the future of Ireland. This has been called the Loyalist veto, because it gives the unionists a built-in majority. "The unionist veto", Nilus believes, "has been the basis for total disagreement on this island since 1921 and is recognised by most people, including the Dublin administration, as unjust".

The other contentious issue on which the British are digging in their heels is demilitarisation. The British government has implied that no negotiations will be conducted with Sinn Fein unless the IRA disarms. Sinn Fein has rejected this demand.

"There are more than IRA guns involved in Irish politics", Nilus says. "If the IRA are to hand over their weapons, then we also have to have the handing over of British weapons. We have to take down the watch towers, the spy posts, the partitions in the community, remove the SAS personnel; we have to dig up the underground spies with their cameras trained on the community. The RUC, the British Army, the undercover agents, the illegal guns held by the unionists all have to be taken out of Irish politics. If the British refuse to demilitarise then I would say the IRA would be very foolish to hand over their weapons".

On constitutional questions, the British have focused on sovereignty for the north rather than looking at a solution for all of Ireland. In discussions between the Irish and British governments, John Major is believed to have stressed the need to remove Article Two of the 1937 Irish constitution, which lays claim to sovereignty over the whole of Ireland. The British were also believed to be resisting any sort of executive powers for a north-south political body and refusing any mechanisms whereby the two governments could override a six-county administration if it refused to work on cross-border bodies.

A strong influence on Major's approach to negotiations may be his increasing reliance on Official Unionists in Westminster to bolster the Tories' dwindling minority. The Conservatives majority has dropped to 14, making Major reluctant to offend the Unionists and far-right backbenchers by concessions to Sinn Fein.

When they created Northern Ireland in 1921, the British created a Frankenstein. The Unionists were used as a tool to maintain a sphere of influence for Britain in a hostile country. The Unionists existence depends solely on British support.

But once created, Northern Ireland had a dynamic of its own that the British could not entirely control. The British could not stifle the nationalist struggle for justice and reunification. The British could also not avoid the embarrassment of the extremely violent offshoot of the Unionism they had armed and created: the Loyalist death squads.

For Britain to disengage from the north of Ireland today would leave a lot of people on the shore waving Union Jacks and screaming betrayal — not a pretty sight to conservative opinion in Britain. "Major has categorically assured the Unionists", Nilus explains, "that they are as British as they want to be".

To break this deadlock, Sinn Fein in recent years had put a lot of attention into addressing Protestant fears about a united Ireland. Sinn Fein has never been a Catholic rights group and has sought to direct its struggle against the British and not Protestants as such.

Sinn Fein is also clear that it doesn't merely want the north to become part of the Irish Republic without any other changes. According to Nilus, "Partition has created two very reactionary capitalist states, north and south. If the British were to leave, a new Ireland could be worked out that would reflect the political and social interest of all the people of Ireland. In other words, there would need to be profound changes to the structure of society. Sinn Fein is actively engaged with the people of this island in that struggle."

Nilus feels that Sinn Fein has been able to increase its popularity very rapidly since the cease-fire. "We have been able to really build our party in the north. Since the broadcasting ban was lifted in the south, we are actively trying to campaign and build the party there. I think you will see an enormous change in the voting patterns in the south, first because of the peace process but also because of the end to censorship. The popularity of Sinn Fein has taken an enormous leap forward through this process."

The signs so far are that overall this cease-fire will be a more productive experience for the republican movement than the last cease-fire in February 1975, which ended with the IRA declaring it would never lay down arms again until British troops had withdrawn. The 1975 cease-fire, or truce, was announced because of an agreement from the British that Sinn Fein would be allowed to set up incident centres to monitor attacks on the nationalist community and that the British would reconsider internment without trial.

The truce failed, however, as the British government went on an intelligence offensive, tracking and monitoring IRA volunteers. The British used the respite to remove special category status for republican prisoners and begin the process of "Ulsterisation". The truce collapsed by November, with the IRA feeling it had lost more ground than it had gained.

Today Sinn Fein and the IRA are in a different position and are looking at different tactics. Danny Morrison, a leader of Sinn Fein who coined the republican strategy "the Armalite and the ballot-box", has talked about the need to develop an "unarmed strategy" for the nationalist movement.

When asked about this, Nilus explained that Sinn Fein remains a "radical progressive party. We don't have all the answers to the sort of Ireland that we want. But we are looking at small nations and how they have set up government around the world. We are actively looking at Nicaragua under the Sandinistas."

She continued, "The south of Ireland has a higher national debt than countries like Mexico. There is massive unemployment and emigration. These problems also exist in the north. We have a country that has become the dumping ground of dirty multinational industries. We have a country where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. All these issues demand social and political changes."

The key issue at the moment remains, however: will Britain leave Ireland? "The British are leaving Ireland, there is no question about that", says Nilus, "but the big question is when, and what sort of Ireland we manage to extract from their departure".

The IRA cease-fire represents a courageous step towards peace by the republicans. If the British continue to try to block the peace process, then the longest war could resume. If they agree to withdraw, the journey to peace in Ireland will have just begun.