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Great result – or grand political deception?

(by Frank Millar, Irish Times)

Gerry Adams is obviously a hero to his family, friends and admirers, as for his party's large army of supporters generally. For many others, of course, he ranks as one of the greatest deceivers in the history of politics. And some would have it that the ultimate victims of his grand political deception will be the very people who put him where he is, having previously supported the IRA's long "war" to drive the British out of Ireland.

A small number of unionists, too, subscribe to this theory. They cheerfully echo the now faint and dying cries of the republican dispossessed, and beat their chests in frustration at "the stupidity" of the unionist leadership's response to Thursday's IRA statement.

"This is the day they said would never happen until the Brits pulled out of Ireland," one totally sane, highly intelligent observer argued with friends in Belfast on Thursday night: "These are the people who said they wouldn't decommission so much as a rusty bullet. Now here they are saying the war is over." For this man at least the long-awaited decision to call off its campaign did indeed amount to what The Sun newspaper happily accepted as the IRA's "surrender".

His anxiety was that the Rev Ian Paisley and his colleagues should keep their eye on "the big picture" and prepare the necessary moves to facilitate the completion of the republican transition from terror to democracy.

It is not necessary to share this benign assessment to understand the logic of the approach. Paisley and the DUP, like David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists before them, want to preserve a stable and secure Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. As with Trimble, the Blair government now urges Paisley that the best way to achieve this is by locking Sinn Féin into the "partitionist" settlement at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, what alternative is there? Were the DUP to veto all possibility of resumed power sharing they would arguably let Sinn Féin "off the hook", leaving them free to further radicalise Catholic opinion for Irish unity. Combined with the debilitating effect of ongoing loyalist paramilitarism, this would leave Northern Ireland neither stable nor secure. In time, inevitably, the forces of nationalist Ireland would re-group to demand yet another political solution. And the British, don't you know, would want to oblige with a new settlement even less to the unionists' liking.

It is whispered from time to time that the unionists really have little option but to make this tactical decision, whether or not they believe Adams deludes himself about the Agreement as a transition to Irish unity. The alternative, it is insinuated, can only be the ever-greening of Direct Rule and the gradual emergence of some form of joint authority. Indeed some anxious unionists fear Adams and those around him have already effectively discarded the idea of a power-sharing deal with Paisley in favour of an alternative agenda designed to enhance their electoral prospects in the Republic.

This may indeed be the unionist dilemma but those hoping to benefit from it should beware some obvious pitfalls. The implicit threat (or blackmail) is more likely to entrench attitudes in a unionist community now led by the DUP. Moreover, not all members of the unionist political class believe a weakened Prime Minister Blair is in any position to deliver such a radical constitutional departure, even were he so disposed.

However, the biggest problem with this "better the power-sharing deal you know" approach is that it has already been tried and found wanting. David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists made this tactical and strategic choice in 1998, calculating that Adams' talk of a transition to Irish unity was strictly for the birds – or, more precisely, for the republican base. Without ever having Sinn Féin sign on the dotted line, much less the IRA say a word on the subject, the UUP gambled that the "consent" principle at the heart of the Agreement obliged Adams to reassure his own supporters while bowing to the realities of a partitionist settlement, with all the symbolism of the British State in Northern Ireland that would go with it.

We all know what happened next. The unionists gradually came to believe the Sinn Féin take on the Agreement and Trimble and the Ulster Unionists were destroyed. Yet now a triumphant DUP is asked to go back down the same path on-back of an IRA decision to end its campaign – note, it's campaign, not "the war" - because it is satisfied there is now an alternative way "to end British rule in our country."

Are they mad? Plain deluded? Or just saving-face as they retreat? The demographics certainly do not support the republican assertion. And the Irish foreign policy which led to the Good Friday accord was said to be predicated on the belief that unionists had to "lose" on a range of issues in order to win the prize of Catholic acceptance of the reality of the Union with Britain.

Yet I have never been persuaded that Gerry Adams is lying to himself or to his own people. There have certainly been seismic shifts in republican attitudes and strategies. But there is no evidence of a republican willingness to invest in a process would either legitimise or stabilise the British state in Northern Ireland. That is why the DUP is making a huge mistake in thinking that it is only the actions of IRA volunteers (and they haven't gone away, you know) which matter. As Michael McDowell grasped all to well last December, the language is vital too.

Past evidence shows that a deal based on a lie, or capable of being sold to unionists and republicans as wholly different things, will not hold. Which is also why the next negotiation, when it comes, could be infinitely more complex and protracted than the last.

July 31, 2005

This article appears in the July 30, 2005 edition of the Irish Times.