It is ironic, but three or four decades of fear and violence threatened the Union between Ulster and Westminster less than today’s announcement by the IRA that they are to dump their weapons and commit to a cessation of armed conflict.
If you are a young protestant unionist living in the six counties, I would sell up now and move at least to the mainland, if not further. The game is up, you can’t win now. Ireland will itself be unified by 2015.
[This article is quite long, but I try to keep it engaging and controversial, so please don’t give up too easily.]
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it dawned on people how to resolve this issue, but I had myself certainly developed a theory sometime in 1994/95. Indeed, after a moment’s madness in the Officers’ Mess in Londonderry, punishment for which was a night on camp duty (proper camp duty that is, sangar sentry / camp patrolling etc like what the Jocks had to do) for all the Officer miscreants, I can plainly recall telling my good friend and now Jasper’s godfather, Major Phil White, exactly how I thought it would all play out.
The key to it came in observing the very stark change of direction and policy once John Major took over from Maggie in 1990. For the best part of a decade, Maggie and the IRA had been to engaged in the most bloody and violent battle. They tried to blow her up, so she had them shot on the streets in cold blood (or so some might allege!). Do read “Big Boys’ Rules” if you get the chance. Maggie’s contribution, other than to provide the SAS and the rest of the Army with the most outstanding training ground, was to fight the IRA into a retreat and force them to look for other ways out. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened that way. I remain confident that Maggie would have slaughtered every last one of them had she had the chance.
I first served in Northern Ireland in 1992 with the then 3rd Bn The Royal Irish Regiment, in South Armagh and the Newry / Newcastle area. The Royal Irish had only recently been formed from the old UDR and things were changing, despite fierce resistance. At around the same time, I met Lara, who has a very interesting Uncle. By the time I returned to South Armagh in 1994 (three days after our wedding!), the first cease-fire had been called since the only other one in 1973/4. I discovered that Lara's uncle had negotiated both.
When I asked myself why such a person had been called upon to conduct such negotiations, an understandable strategy fell into place:
The IRA had proved themselves a match for anyone. They tied up the best part of half the British Army for two decades!! (Please don’t let anyone tell you our current bombers are sophisticated – they are not, but the IRA were. The IRA’s principal and largely successful aim was to get away and as such their sophistication and ingenuity was admirable). I think it occurred to some people, people who were shut out during Maggie’s reign, that the only real way to resolve the problem – and this is the interesting bit – was to convince Adams and McGuiness that they could achieve the same ends through different means. And those means were Political.
You see the motivation of the IRA leadership had shifted subtly. Religion was less and less important. The real motivation now lay in money and power (perhaps it always did). The terrorism business was proving a highly effective way of controlling vast swathes of people and money. John Major listened and concluded similarly, that the way to peace was through shifting the process away from the knee-cappings and murders and into the ballot box.
If he could give these men a political power to replace their criminal power, they would have to play the political game, and killing and blood don’t play well at election time when you are seeking a popular mandate. They would have to attract votes and have policies and address issues with ideas. MI5 knew also, that Adams and McGuiness were intelligent men and more than a little attracted to the prospect of power and the various trappings that come with it. Suddenly, to retain the power and money they are used to, they have to stop bombing and shooting people.
Fundamental to this process however, had to be the understanding that in time, democracy would create a route to achieving the desired republic. Sinn Fein would one day have a majority and with that majority they can take the beautiful counties of Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Down away from the Crown (and yes, I did deliberately miss out Co. Londonderry!!)
So began the long and bumpy and slightly bloody journey towards the Good Friday Agreement and beyond until we arrive at today. Tony will of course take the credit. He is PM and so it is his right and privilege, but don’t be deceived – it does not belong to him. He has been a passenger in a vehicle built by Maggie and set rolling by John Major.
I played my part, too! I was in charge of the operation to dismantle the first border crossing observation tower at Clady in Co. Tyrone. I say in charge rather than in control, because kids in the village ran rings round us and nicked anything and everything that wasn’t nailed down. It wasn’t amusing at the time, but I am smiling now!
Sinn Fein and the British Govt know that, in time, the Catholics will have a political majority in Northern Ireland and will be able to bring about their desires. They have both accepted the principal that if the majority want it so, then Northern Ireland can join the Republic, but it must be done through the power of elections not bombs.
So after three elections, the share of the vote has steadily increased for Sinn Fein to 25%. The UUP have been demolished. Only Antrim and Down hold out under Unionist control. The political ground is set for Sinn Fein to look quite peaceful in comparison with the currently dominant, Paisley led DUP.
It is going to happen. Within two more general elections, Sinn Fein will have a majority. Birth rates among the Catholic communities are set in place to achieve it.
If the Northern Irish Assembly is restored as a result of today’s action, the DUP will have no choice but to play a part. If they don’t, they will lose. Trouble is it’s check-mate – they lose if they do, too.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, cheer or boo, applaud or rant. Good game, good game.