Even for a place which produces more history than it can consume locally, today was a bit of a corker on the island of Ireland, with an election in the Republic, and the swearing in of the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont, and the hitherto unimaginable — except in the mind of a sitcom writer — vision of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness becoming first and deputy ministers respectively.
The Good Friday agreement has been claimed by Tony Blair and his supporters as one of New Labour’s triumphs — and like everything else about Blair, it’s nine parts spin. From the British side, John Major deserves rather more credit than Blair, having moved the idea of negotiations forward amid an immensely more hostile party (and including people like Norman Tebbit, whose wife had been maimed in the Brighton Hotel bombing), and at a time when the IRA was launching mortar attacks on Downing Street.
But the two men who really deserve most of the credit for the movement towards peace are … Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Like it or not, it’s Adams and McGuinness who have spent years, decades really, shepherding the IRA towards a political rather than military path to a unified republic.
Many will find that hard to swallow, but the facts bear it out. When the Provisional IRA first emerged in the late ’60s, it did so because the Official IRA (which became Marxist in the ’60s) had refused to break out the arms for Catholics to defend themselves against Protestant attacks (the Officials had focused on building a broad civil rights movement).
That process quickly became something else — the Provos (the term was dropped in the late ’70s, after the Officials had become the Workers party) were heavily influenced by the ideas of Che Guevara and the urban guerrilla theorist Carlos Marighela. They thought a quick violent terror/guerrilla campaign would expose Britain as a weak imperialist power, and they’d soon leave.
When it didn’t work out that way, Adams was one of the first to see that the Officials’ approach had, in fact, been the correct one. Writing, allegedly, as “Brownie” in An Phobalcht, the Sinn Fein paper, he began to shift thinking round to this approach. McGuinness was a later convert, but his value was that he was far more respected by the active units than Adams was.
But when you have a group that counts every attempt at a political settlement as a betrayal of the spirit of 1916, you have to turn things round slowly. The emergence of the Continuity IRA and the hideous Armagh bomb that killed 30 in the late ’90s shows what would have happened — on a much larger scale — if Adams and McGuinness had not been able to move the army and party as one substantial unit.
Indeed, throughout the process, it’s been Sinn Fein/IRA that’s shown a much greater maturity about the way things stand — putting their weapons beyond use years before the Protestant paramilitaries did. The nationalists simply realised that there was no support base on either side for a shooting war, and arms were largely irrelevant. Any violent outbreak — and that may still occur from dissidents on either side — would simply be seen as little more than criminality, a desperate last act.
And the proof of their success — though whether anything resembling politics has fallen out of the bottom is another question — can be seen in the fact that not only have their constituency accepted power-sharing, but the Taiseach in the Republic is having to deny that he will call on Sinn Fein as a coalition partner. Amazing results.
Perhaps, John Howard should give the hard men a call …