Shortly after the Canary Wharf bomb, John Major, speaking in the House of Commons, said: ‘As for the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I think that they are both members one of another.’ Sinn Fein, he continued, would now have to decide whether it wanted to be a constitutional party or continue as a front for the IRA. Ignoring renewed protestations from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that Sinn Fein is separate from the IRA, that it is a political party with a democratic mandate from its voters, most politicians and observers have, like Major himself, accepted almost without question the Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA. They do so in spite of the fact that few details of the relationship are known and many of the ‘insights’ plain wrong. The Sunday Times, for example, was demonstrably mistaken when it announced that Gerry Kelly, one of Sinn Fein’s chief negotiators at Stormont, is a highly placed IRA man who is not even a member of the Party. Kelly, who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, may or may not be a member of the IRA army council, but he is certainly a member of Sinn Fein: he stood unsuccessfully at last year’s Árd Fheis, or party conference, for election to the Árd Chomhairle – the Party’s national executive.
If the peace process is to be resurrected with any realistic chance of success, those engaged in negotiations with the Republican movement need to make a better effort to understand the way Republicans think and work (know your enemy: it is a basic principle). Nor is there any use in pretending that the North of Ireland is the same as Yorkshire or the Midlands or East Anglia; it is not even Wales or Scotland. It is no good demanding that everyone behave as though the gun and the bomb had played no part in recent history. Sinn Fein may not be a normal political party with normal antecedents but in the Six Counties the distance between ballot and ammunition box has always been small, and not just on the Republican side.
Unionist and Nationalist, Loyalist and Republican have had cause to resort to arms, and always found the arguments to justify it. It is not so long ago that Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, invited the media to a night-time parade of hundreds of his supporters as they waved their gun licences and threatened, in the name of democracy and the Protestant people, to use their weapons if Britain tried to force constitutional change on them. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, now hailed in many quarters as a ‘moderate’, was himself a supporter of Vanguard, the militant Unionist body which in the early Seventies had links with Loyalist paramilitaries. After the abolition of the Stormont Government in 1972 Vanguard’s massed ranks lined up and fell in infantry-style to be reviewed by William Craig, masquerading as a latter-day Carson. In the North of Ireland, it is better not to throw stones: many political houses are made of glass.
The North is, unhappily, a special case: were it not, there would have been no need to arm the police, to build forts, to garrison towns, to imprison large numbers of the population without trial, to deploy the SAS, to impose curfews, to eavesdrop, watch, patrol and control. It would not have been necessary to embark on peace processes, to hold secret talks, to hold talks about talks, to invite American Presidents. It would not have been necessary to do any of the thousand special things that have been done there. John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew do not like it, but one of the defining characteristics of Irish Nationalism – and Unionism, for that matter – is that it has always had a tradition of physical force. The survival of that tradition is lamentable and anachronistic, but they are foolish to attribute its continued vitality to the very man who has done most to rein it in. For more than fifteen years, Gerry Adams has been coaxing Sinn Fein away from its militarist origins, yet Adams’s achievement has gone unacknowledged and the man himself continues to receive nothing but the lowest insults. ‘I wonder if he was bullied at school,’ Alexander Chancellor wrote in the Guardian shortly after Canary Wharf:
He looks as if he might have been. He exudes that combination of aloofness and self-satisfaction which invites bullying. I can imagine wanting to smash his glasses in the playground. I can even imagine wanting to do it now. But what I think I would really like to do now would be to get somebody to hold his arms behind his back while I grasp his nose and his beard very tight and refuse to let go until he swears three times that he condemns the IRA and will never condone violence again.
Most commentators were agreed that if Adams didn’t condemn the bombing he should be cast into the wilderness. A surer recipe for prolonging the North’s tragedy would be harder to imagine.
The proponents of physical force within the Republican movement – those who have always argued that Britain only listens to guns and bombs, that the Easter Rising and the War of Independence achieved what the Home Rulers at Westminster could not, that IRA guns and Semtex would force the Brits out – have generally held sway over those who argued that violence only polarised the situation and delayed British withdrawal. John Major and Patrick Mayhew have not grasped the fact, but it is their good fortune to be in office at a time when the position of the political men relative to the militarists has been reversed. Until quite recently, most Republicans saw political activity as synonymous with compromise and betrayal. Since Partition, those who wanted to get the British out have continued to opt for the Army rather than the Party. In the Sixties – when Sinn Fein was an illegal organisation (it was not unbanned until 1974) – the efforts of more politically conscious activists like Gerry Adams to organise the Party met with little success. Sinn Fein, Adams has written, was then ‘a very small organisation ... You could almost describe it as an incestuous association made up as it was of members of a few spinal Republican families.’
During the Sixties the old, Dublin-based Marxist leadership of Cathal Goulding and Tomás Mac Giolla began scaling down the Army in an effort to modernise Republicanism and attract mass support. By 1969 the Belfast IRA was virtually non-existent and so poorly armed it could not defend the Nationalist population against the incursions of Loyalist mobs and the B-Specials. After the split of the following year, the Officials – following the Marxist model favoured by Goulding and Mac Giolla – were careful to subordinate the Army to the Party and, in spite of the obvious security implications, ordered all members of the Official IRA to join the Republican Clubs, the Officials’ version, in the North, of Sinn Fein. The local Republican Club chairman was invariably the OC of the local unit of the Official IRA, the secretary was the adjutant, the treasurer was the finance officer and so on. After calling their own ceasefire in 1972, the Officials moved steadily away from the armed struggle – though they never decommissioned their weapons – and eventually evolved into the Workers’ Party and, after another split, the Democratic Left, whose leader, Proinsais de Rossa, is a member of John Bruton’s coalition government (Adams likes to refer to de Rossa as ‘my former colleague’).
Those who flocked to join what was then the Provisional wing of the movement saw themselves as armed militants to the Officials’ political compromisers. For them, Michael Collins had said all there was to say about the value of words in the struggle against the Crown when he gave the oration at the funeral of Thomas Ashe, who died on hunger strike in 1917: ‘That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian.’ In the early and mid-Seventies, the sheer scale of the conflict with the British Army and the RUC left little room for the political men and women to assert themselves. Sinn Fein remained what it had been for half a century, essentially a support group and propaganda arm for the IRA. The Party, one former IRA volunteer recalls, was ‘the organisation to which older IRA members retired’. Its leaders – Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Dáithí Ó Conaill – had made their names not as politicians but as IRA men. Their view, in contradiction to that of most revolutionary movements from Vietnam to Algeria, was that the Party was subservient to the needs of the Army, a line which prevailed because at that time the IRA was enjoying a certain measure of success, every day inflicting casualties on soldiers and police and maintaining control in no-go areas in Belfast and Derry. Beyond cheering on the ‘boys’, there was little for Sinn Fein members to do. Because of the Party’s policy not to fight elections, there was no canvassing or polling, and with the exception of ‘war news’ little in the way of publicity material to prepare. Sinn Fein did not even originate its own policies: the 1971 manifesto, Éire Nua, was drawn up by the IRA leadership.
There was little overlap of membership between the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. Active IRA volunteers were too busy with other matters to bother with what in any case they considered an inferior form of activity. A Sinn Fein councillor in Belfast, himself a former IRA volunteer, says that in the Seventies ‘the crossover in membership between the Party and the Army was near enough non-existent.’ A member of Sinn Fein’s present Árd Chomhairle recalls that in 1973 he was the only member of his local IRA unit to be a member of the local Sinn Fein cumann, or association. Politics, he says, had such a dirty name that ‘anyone who wanted to contribute to the struggle tended to think of the armed struggle.’ His assessment of the present situation? ‘I don’t know of a single IRA volunteer who’s a member of Sinn Fein in my area.’ He attributes this to lack of time: ‘This is one of our big problems. The Party demands a lot from its members.’ Another local Sinn Fein activist and former IRA prisoner thinks the reason IRA volunteers do not get involved with Sinn Fein has more to do with security considerations. Sinn Fein only began to expand its role in the late Seventies, as a group of young radicals centred on Gerry Adams, who became the Party’s vice-president in 1978, started to reflect on the Republicans’ failure to capitalise on the IRA’s successes. Around this time, Adams presented a discussion document, ‘A Scenario for Peace’, to the Árd Fheis, in which he argued that the armed struggle could not by itself achieve the Republican goal of ejecting the British from Ireland. A proper political organisation was urgently needed. In the context of the Republican movement at that time it was a revolutionary departure: in the context of today’s peace process it was a highly significant moment, signalling the emergence of men and women who were prepared to do business rather than fight to the last round.
The new emphasis on political activity coincided with a crisis in the prisons. In 1976 the Government had removed political status (Special Category Status was the Northern Ireland Office term) from IRA prisoners in the North. In protest, male prisoners in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and female prisoners in Armagh began what became known as the no-wash and dirty protests. In 1981 the protests escalated into the hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of ten prisoners. A hundred thousand people turned up to the funeral of the first man to die, Bobby Sands, who, shortly before his death, had been elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone in a Westminster by-election. Owen Carron, Sands’s election agent, fought and won Sands’s seat in a subsequent by-election. Sinn Fein flourished. In local elections it found itself with over a hundred councillors. The Party also gained seats in the Irish Dáil, and in 1982 won representation in the Assembly set up as the result of an initiative by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior. The following year, Adams, already an Assembly member, became MP for West Belfast (he held the seat in 1987 before losing it to the SDLP in 1992). At the same time, Adams, McGuinness and other Northerners displaced the Party’s old leadership in elections at the Árd Fheis. Some electoral gains disappeared as the high emotions of the hunger strike period subsided, but Sinn Fein has been successful in retaining the loyalty of its core voters, around 12 per cent of McGuinness the electorate in the North, a third Of the Nationalist vole (in Belfast it got more votes than any other party in the last City Hall elections). By the mid-Eighties Sinn Fein had become the kind of political party Adams had long dreamed of creating.
Reviewing the Party’s electoral successes, many IRA volunteers began for the first time to take Sinn Fein seriously. Undoubtedly, some saw the Party’s gains as a satisfying reflection of the support the IRA enjoyed within the Nationalist community; and many who voted for Sinn Fein at that time did so in the belief that they were voting for the IRA. When Martin McGuinness was elected to the Assembly in 1982, his supporters carried him shoulder-high chanting ‘I-I-IRA,’ leaving no one in any doubt about the significance to them of political activity. Nevertheless a profound change in the status of political work was underway. Sinn Fein’s position relative to the IRA continued to be bolstered as released prisoners opted to join the Party rather than return to active service. Most of the current national leadership falls into this category, as do many of Sinn Fein’s local councillors. When journalists and Unionists point to the preponderance of former prisoners among the Party’s negotiators, implying that they must be members of the IRA, they are misreading the nature of IRA membership. One of the most enduring myths is ‘once in, never out.’ It has served as a cranky plot device in a thousand thrillers, but bears no relation to reality. IRA volunteers can and do leave the organisation. Most drift off rather than formally resign; some former volunteers drift back into the organisation, but for many the ordinary human impulse to settle down and raise a family – to make up for lost time after years of imprisonment – takes precedence. Others, unwilling to go back to active service but equally unwilling to give up the struggle, join Sinn Fein. Not everyone severed their links with the Army, however: Sinn Fein was embarrassed on several occasions in the Eighties when high-profile members were arrested and charged with serious offences.
Some prisoners, on release, were given a ‘fast track’ introduction to the Party. Soon after leaving prison, Leo Green, for example, became director of the POW department. Similarly, Jim Gibney was given the role of Six County organiser within a short time of his release. Green, Gibney and other prisoners not only lent status to the Party; they also helped to radicalise it. There had been much reading in jail – everything from Rousseau to Marx to Foucault. Politically aware and streetwise, the new activists threw themselves into a re-organisation of the Party at every level. They campaigned about prison conditions, security issues, the courts, housing, unemployment, local planning, cultural affairs and women’s rights. Advice centres were set up in Republican areas, but proved an enormous drain on the Party’s finances and personnel. So Sinn Fein activists took paid jobs in citizens’ advice bureaux and similar offices instead, strengthening the bonds between the Party and the local community.
The basic building block of Sinn Fein was and remains the local cumann or association. In the Seventies each cumann had a chair, secretary, treasurer and occasionally – if someone could be found whose talents fitted the role – a public relations officer. At that time, cumainn tended to be named in memory of a fallen local volunteer, but the policy had to be discontinued: so many volunteers had been killed it became increasingly invidious to single out one or two for this distinction. Cumainn are now simply called after the area they cover: the Ballymurphy cumann (membership between fifteen and twenty) and the St James cumann (ten to fifteen) cover Upper Springfield Ward and part of Beechmount Ward. To canvass during elections the cumann will be able to call on an additional thirty or forty supporters or otherwise inactive members. Sinn Fein does not levy a registration fee on individuals but requires £70 a year from each cumann. There are approximately three hundred cumainn in the country. At the moment Sinn Fein is preparing for a ‘party audit’ to get a better idea of actual membership, now reckoned to be between a thousand and 1500. Above the cumainn are two regional tiers in the organisation: the chomhairle ceantair (whose territory tends to reflect Westminster and Dáil constituency boundaries) and the chomhairle limistear, such as Belfast, Derry, Mid-Ulster and Munster, which are generally composed of up to five constituency areas.
The Party’s governing executive – the Árd Chomhairle – is elected from the annual party conference, the Árd Fheis. Membership of the Árd Chomhairle varies between twenty-five and thirty, one-third of whom have to be women. There is an elected officer board whose members include the president (Gerry Adams, since 1983), chair (Mitchell McLaughlin, responsible for overseeing Party organisation), vice president (Pat Doherty, the Party’s chief negotiator with the Dublin Government) and general secretary (Lucilita Bhreatnach). The Árd Chomhairle is also made up of nine elected members. These include Martin McGuinness (often erroneously referred to as Sinn Fein’s vice president, McGuinness heads the team negotiating with British ministers and officials at Stormont). A third group on the Árd Chomhairle are, for reasons of continuity, nominated to run specialised offices, like the POW department. The nominated members do not have voting rights at Árd Chomhairle meetings. The bureaucracy – a head office staff – is based at Parnell Square in Dublin, and is split into Six County and 26-county departments. On paper, the set-up sounds impressive enough – though somewhat top-heavy and bureaucratic. In reality, resources and personnel are stretched – ‘we’re a small party trying to do a big job.’ Sinn Fein has no paid officials and relies on its members’ goodwill, commitment – and steady nerves. Since 1988 20 Sinn Fein activists and members of their families have been killed by Loyalists and the security forces: in 1992 an RUC man burst into the Sinn Fein press centre on the Falls Road and shot three people dead, including two party members; in the same year Loyalists killed Martin Lavery, the brother of Sinn Fein councillor Bobby Lavery – within twelve months they had also killed his son; Brian Nelson, a British military intelligence agent, described in court by a Colonel J as a ‘hero’, conspired to murder, among others, Belfast city councillor Alex Maskey – that Brian Nelson escaped multiple life sentences and received ten years was thanks in large part to the then Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who sanctioned a deal by which four murder counts against Nelson were dropped.
Illegal until twenty years ago, censored until eighteen months ago, its offices regularly bombed and raked with gunfire, its members on permanent guard against assassination, Sinn Fein is not a normal political party: it hasn’t had the chance to be. Most of its leaders, including Adams and McGuinness, are former IRA men who remain committed Irish Republicans and defend, as they put it, ‘the right of the Irish people to defend themselves’. The call for them to distance themselves from the Army by condemning the bombings is so much wasted breath: Sinn Fein and the IRA share the same goal, its members and leaders are from the same mould – literally the same streets – and share the same ideology. Whatever their internal differences – privately, Adams has criticised IRA actions on several occasions – they close ranks against the common enemy. To ask for Sinn Fein to disentangle itself from the IRA is to miss the point about the way Republicanism’s dynamics have operated over the last two decades, driving the movement in a steadily political direction. The link, far from being an obstacle to any settlement, is indispensable to it.
The ceasefire in September 1994 came about because the political men in the movement could argue convincingly that the political road promised more than the military campaign. The Army was sceptical, many in the Party were also doubtful, fearing that the British and Unionists would misread the IRA’s unilateral cessation as a surrender. In Belfast, a month earlier, I had a short talk with Adams. ‘The Army,’ Adams said, ‘are proving flexible. We’ve been working with Dublin and Hume, and it’s really now just a question of tying up the loose ends.’ A ceasefire, he said, was on. How long would it last, I asked. Three months? Six months? ‘If the Brits sit on their hands it would be hard to maintain a ceasefire for that length of time.’ Adams said he believed that if the British failed to respond seriously, the IRA ‘could gel back to war’. Given that, the most surprising thing about the Canary Wharf bomb is not that it exploded but that it took so long in coming, for as far as Republicans are concerned, the ‘Brits’ sat on their hands for a year and a half.
Republicans always knew it was unlikely that there would be any immediate movement on the complex constitutional issues affecting the long-term relationship between the North Of Ireland, Dublin and London. They were prepared for protracted talks and they were also prepared to be pragmatic. Sinn Fein leaders insist – like all politicians they have their constituency – that the aims of the Party remain the same as they have always been: British disengagement and unification. But recent public formulations of this historic goal have subtly changed. It is no longer – and has not been for some time – ‘Brits Out Now’ and a 32-county socialist republic, but a commitment to ‘ending the union with Britain and to the establishment of a new, agreed and inclusive Ireland’. To Unionists the new language is sophistry, but it reflects a very real shift in Republican thinking over the last decade. Brits Out Now, a member of the Árd Chomhairle told me, is the worst possible scenario for Republicans and for Ireland as a whole. ‘It would leave a million very angry Unionists in Ireland.’ When I asked where this left the 32-county socialist republic, he said: ‘That’s on the back burner for now.’
Republicans may have known there was no easy fix on the constitutional question, but they expected a start to be made – hence Sinn Fein’s repeated calls, supported by the Irish Government and John Hume, for all-party talks. John Major’s refusal to set a date for the talks until the IRA had taken steps towards decommissioning its weapons (which had not been an issue in the secret discussions before the ceasefire) increasingly frustrated Sinn Fein negotiators and fomented suspicions about British intentions, but it would not necessarily have led to Canary Wharf had the British made smaller, less controversial concessions. There are those, of course, who argue that any concession is a surrender to terrorism and ‘the men of violence’. However, the fact is that the 1994 ceasefire was exactly that – a ceasefire, not a surrender. To keep the show on the road concessions of some sort were essential. The alternative was the resumption of a war neither side can win.
Some concessions would have been more difficult than others, though at some point they would have had to be addressed. Unionist and Loyalist politicians resolutely opposed any suggestion of RUC reform or of a reduction in troop levels, for example, but there could have been little objection to an economic peace dividend. The IRA’s most signal achievement may yet prove to be that it kept Thatcherite monetarism out of the Six Counties: in direct contrast to other regional economies, the North continues to enjoy relatively generous taxpayers’ support – the idea was to buy loyalty. But public subsidies and a large public sector are no alternative to a real economy. In West Belfast there are pockets of unemployment reaching 85 per cent. However, the ceasefire brought no peace dividend, nor has one job been created. Quite the reverse: 1500 ACE-scheme places – by which people may continue to draw benefits while earning a small additional amount in specially designated jobs – are to be cut, and the Royal Victoria Hospital is to be closed, with the loss of hundreds of local jobs.
The most obvious concession available to the Government, one that apart from anything else would have bought time for more difficult constitutional obstacles to be overcome, was the early release of prisoners. The Unionists would have opposed it, but as John Hume once said, take ‘no’ out of the English language and the Unionists would be speechless. ‘Bringing the prisoners home’ resonates deeply in the Nationalist consciousness. It is a highly emotive issue, even among those who do not support the IRA and would not think of voting for Sinn Fein. Although the Government insists that IRA prisoners are common criminals, most people in Ireland, while abhorring the individual acts that led to imprisonment, recognise that were it not for the political situation the men and women now in jail would never have seen the inside of a police cell let alone a high security prison. Republicans insisted that any settlement would have to involve the release of Republican and Loyalist prisoners from jails in the North, the Irish Republic and England. This time last year, they were confident there would be movement on this issue. They were to be disappointed. While the Dublin Government introduced a programme of phased releases – suspended since the Canary Wharf bomb – the British contented themselves with the reintroduction last summer of 50 per cent remission, a privilege prisoners in the North had enjoyed until 1989, when remission was reduced to one third. Though this led to the quick release of a number of men and women who were nearing the end of their sentences, Sinn Fein’s POW department described the initiative as inadequate. However, given the treatment IRA prisoners were receiving in English jails, those in the North could Count themselves lucky.
Irish prisoners in England have long campaigned for transfer to jails in the North in order to be nearer their families. The Home Office has rarely agreed to such moves, but within days of the ceasefire – and quite separately from it – three men were transferred. There was a small to-do in Parliament and the right-wing press with the result that the civil servants responsible received a slating from Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and a new policy was instituted, barring the transfer of any prisoner without ministerial approval. The whole process then went into low gear as transfers were delayed or refused altogether. In January 1995, in an effort to prevent the transfer of Paul Norney, who had by then served 20 years, the Crown Prosecution Service charged him with mutiny. The charge was later thrown out in both the magistrates’ and crown courts as an abuse of process. The following month, the Lord Chief Justice, reviewing the cases of Norney and four other lifers, said he saw no reason why any of them should remain in prison any longer. They were not released, however, because Howard referred their cases to a discretionary panel, which did not meet until December. In the interim, the High Court had ruled that they were serving too long a time because their tariffs had expired in July. Three of the men won their panel hearings and were released, but not allowed to return to Ireland because of the terms of their probation order. Norney, who had meanwhile been transferred to the North, was not released because he had not been present for his lifer panel. The fifth man, Brendan Dowd, was not released because he was judged not to have ‘sufficiently addressed his offending behaviour’. The case that did most to outrage Republicans was that of Patrick Kelly, convicted some three years ago of conspiracy to cause explosions and sentenced to 25 years. Kelly was confined in a special secure unit in Full Sutton, where his medical condition – he is suffering from melanoma – went completely untreated. He was moved to another prison and eventually taken to hospital in chains to undergo extensive surgery on his back. Since the ceasefire three other IRA lifers – Pat Magee, Paul Kavanagh and Tommy Quigley – have been informed that their tariffs have been raised to 50 years, a decision now being challenged in the courts. Republicans bitterly contrast the treatment of IRA prisoners with that of the paratrooper Lee Clegg, released after serving less than two years for murder and promoted to sergeant.
As far as the peace process was concerned, the point about Howard’s initiatives is whether he was implementing them in opposition to his cabinet colleagues’ wishes. If he was, then the Government could hardly be said to have had a coherent policy on prisoners and the peace process; if he was not, John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew were sending clear signals to Sinn Fein and the IRA about their larger intentions. A member of Sinn Fein’s POW department says that in their meetings with the Northern Ireland Office, officials seemed to accept the political dimension of the prisoner question. Yet after meeting Home Office officials to discuss the issue of IRA prisoners in English jails, they ‘came away thinking; “What century are these people from?” ’ (He says, incidentally, that Dublin civil servants privately complain about being treated like thick Paddies by the British side. ‘Paddy’ still looms large in the British official imagination. That’s how senior police officers, for example, refer to the IRA.) Republicans read Howard’s actions as being deliberately provocative; and it was not only Republicans who were disappointed. Breidge Gadd, Chief Probation Officer in the North of Ireland, recently attacked the Government for its handling of Irish prisoners in English jails, criticising the slowness on transfers and the probation requirements for those released. She made her criticisms, she said, ‘in the context of what Peter Brooke said – that if there was a ceasefire. Britain would be found to be both generous and imaginative.’
Had the British Government played the prisoner issue more adeptly, it’s likely that they could not only have kept the show on the road but succeeded in driving a wedge between the IRA and the prisoners’ families. ‘What if the Brits had said they would clear the jails by, say, the year 2000 as long as the ceasefire held?’ the wife of an IRA lifer, herself a Sinn Fein activist said to me. ‘Can you imagine the pressure on the IRA from the families? The Brits could have wrecked the movement if they’d played this different.’
All this is now academic. By the time the Mitchell Commission – set up after Bill Clinton’s visit last November, to find a way round the decommissioning issue – was ready to report, the patience of the Army was nearing its end. John Major’s unfortunate attempt to finesse the report and take up the Unionist idea of elections was, for the IRA, an unambiguous signal that the British had no intention of seriously engaging with Republicans on any level. Major, who missed every opportunity to do business with the political men, played straight into the hands of those who argued all along that the only thing to which the British listen is the sound of bombs, especially if they go off in London. His and John Bruton’s denials notwithstanding, the subsequent decision to set a date for all-party talks has only served to confirm this long-standing Republican axiom.
The door is still open, just about – in spite of the Government’s refusal to invite Sinn Fein to the latest round of talks about talks, which started on 4 March. The evidence is that Republicans still want a negotiated settlement. In the North, every Sinn Feiner I talked to was unhappy that the situation had deteriorated to this extent. The Party’s supporters desperately want the peace process to restart. All the polls show that people in Ireland want to see an end to the conflict; they also show a clear majority in favour of all-party talks without preconditions. Adams says he wants the peace process restarted, so does McGuinness. Nothing new there perhaps. But a fresh and unexpected voice made itself heard recently. Joe O’Connell, one of the Balcombe Street IRA unit captured in 1975, wrote to An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s newspaper, from his prison cell in England, to castigate the IRA for having broken the ceasefire: he described the decision as ‘the most stupid, blinkered and ill-conceived decision ever made by a revolutionary body’. O’Connell, a highly respected figure within the Army, said he didn’t believe ‘returning to the armed struggle can be justified in any way in the light of the past 18 months of peace ... Our people and supporters deserve better than for us to turn back the clock and ask them to carry the pain and burden of further years of conflict for what in the end we know and accept has to be a negotiated settlement.’ Above all else, O’Connell’s letter de monstrates the extent to which the physical force men have rethought their position. Has John Major noticed?