St Patrick's Day should mark a new beginning
ST PATRICK’S Day will be less nauseating than usual this year. The Plastic Paddery and sham shamrockery on display is bad enough, particularly in the United States, but nothing compared to the sight of politicians in Washington fawning over Gerry Adams. This year at least we will not have to pretend that Mr Adams is anything other than the leader of a movement that is a thuggish law unto itself.
The Bush administration’s determination not to allow Mr Adams anywhere near the White House at last allows us to drop the pretence that all parties are equally responsible for the crisis in the peace process.
That makes it doubly unfortunate that President Bush has chosen not to invite Northern Ireland’s constitutional parties to the White House. Nonetheless, the presence of Robert McCartney’s sisters in the White House will at least demonstrate that the days when Sinn Fein could count on an easy ride in Washington are coming to a close.
Although snubbed by the president, Mr Adams will, alas, still be in America this week. His activities will be low key compared with previous visits and there will be none of the fundraising banquets that normally greet his arrival in the United States. Instead, Mr Adams will meet politicians such as Edward Kennedy and New York Congressman Peter King.
Mr King says he will tell the Sinn Fein leader that it is time for the IRA to put their guns away once and for all. One hopes so, but only a month ago Mr King was arguing that excluding Sinn Fein from the White House could be counter-productive. For his part, Mr Kennedy says: "There is no place for a paramilitary organisation and criminal activity in a democratic political party, and I will tell Gerry Adams that."
Which is fine, but for the fact that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have been telling Mr Adams that for years with no effect whatsoever.
For all that the American media has awoken to the crisis in Northern Ireland - the Washington Post argued in an editorial last month that recent events "should be enough to destroy any remaining American sentimentality about the IRA, an organisation that appears to have successfully transformed itself into not a democratic political party but rather an organised crime syndicate" - it remains the case that many of Sinn Fein’s American sympathisers would agree with Mr Adams’ comments at his party’s recent annual conference.
"Our leadership is working to create the conditions where the IRA ceases to exist," he said. "Do I believe this can be achieved? Yes I do. But I do not believe the IRA can be wished away, or ridiculed or embarrassed, or demonised or repressed out of existence." That may seem incredible, but there you have it.
Friends of Sinn Fein, the party’s American fundraising operation, have contributed an annual average of around $500,000 to Sinn Fein in recent years. When Robert McCartney’s name fades into history, one ought not to expect there to be a serious slide in American support for Sinn Fein outwith the halls of Capitol Hill. Even today, much of Irish-America retains a deeply sentimental view of the ould country. Sure, even if the boys back home make some mistakes, and I’m not condoning violence you understand, their hearts are in the right place, you know?
Taken together, the Northern Bank robbery and the McCartney murder ought to have been disastrous for Mr Adams. Just a few months ago he was one of the most popular politicians in the Republic of Ireland and Sinn Fein was planning how best to increase its electoral support towards its aim of being a coalition partner in the next Irish government.
That prospect looks much less likely now. The most recent Irish Times poll found that Mr Adams’ popularity had declined in the south from 51 per cent in October to 30 per cent this month, even if Sinn Fein support in the north appears largely undented.
The great, tragic bargain of the peace process has been that in exchange for a quasi-peace the extremists on both sides have been strengthened at the expense of the moderate centre.
Yet, in one sense, it is only right that this crisis should have arisen. The process has been founded upon an unfulfilled wish: that in exchange for reform the gun would disappear at last from Irish politics. According to Sean Duignan, who served as former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ press secretary, Martin McGuinness admitted a decade ago that peace would require the IRA’s guns to be "banjaxed" - ie, put beyond use. They still haven’t been, despite Sinn Fein signing up to that principle in the Good Friday Agreement more than seven years ago.
As recently as the end of last year a supposed IRA offer to dismantle arms in the presence of two independent observers was scuppered when the organisation refused to allow photographs to be taken to demonstrate, once and for all, that the guns were being put away.
IRISH politicians have called this willingness to turn a blind eye to Sinn Fein’s inability to live up to promises it made at the Good Friday Agreement "constructive ambiguity". But there comes a point when ambiguity curdles into hypocrisy; a moment when it becomes an impediment to progress not a means towards it. That point has surely been reached. If someone spends a decade lying to you, is it really wise to keep giving them the benefit of the doubt? Yet that is what London and Dublin have chosen to do.
This has been justified in the name of TINA - There Is No Alternative. But the consequence of allowing Sinn Fein to remain part of the peace process has been the poisoning of civil society in Northern Ireland. Has it been worth it? Twelve years on from the Downing Street Declaration that’s becoming harder and harder to say.
The IRA continues to operate a state within a state and continues, as this week’s statements make clear, to believe it has the right to act as judge and jury wherever it sees fit. Just as calamitously, the peace process has made Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s DUP the largest parties in the province. Despite all the good intentions the centre has not held; no wonder things have fallen apart.
Thankfully, the Irish government seems to have woken up to the threat the Republican movement poses to the integrity of political life south of the border. If Sinn Fein is to be first excluded and then beaten, Dublin will have to take the lead.
The country’s justice minister, Michael McDowell, a man blessed with a visceral distaste for the Republican movement, used a radio interview to state categorically that both Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness remained on the IRA Army Council. Neither man, I see, has yet sued for slander.
A weekend poll found that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate now believe the government should insist upon an act of decommissioning or some other such concrete symbol from the Republican movement before re-entering talks with Sinn Fein. That should encourage ministers in London, Belfast and Dublin to restart the peace process by reconstituting the assembly in Belfast - minus Sinn Fein. Ministers in London insist that progress can’t be made without Sinn Fein. Maybe. But it’s just as clear that progress is impossible with them too.
As David Trimble put it: "We can’t have a moral vacuum at the heart of the process." But that is exactly what we do - and will - have for as long as there is one set of rules for the Republican movement and one for everyone else.
Sinn Fein is Irish for "Ourselves Alone" and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s time, beginning at the White House on Thursday, to move on without the Republican movement. It’s time for actions to have consequences. That would be something worth toasting with a pint of green beer this St Patrick’s Day.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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