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13 February 1997 Edition

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Towards a Lasting Peace - five years on

BY MICHEAL MacDONNCHA

Writing in this paper five years ago this month, Danny Morrison, then a prisoner in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, made the following statement: ``The only certain way to stop young nationalists from taking up arms is to provide them with a credible alternative to armed struggle.''

That same month, February 1992, Sinn Féin published its historic discussion document Towards a Lasting Peace. Few could have predicted what a watershed that would prove to be. The same issue of the paper that carried Morrison's article also reported on the funerals of IRA Volunteers Patrick Vincent, Kevin Barry O'Donnell, Sean O'Farrell and Peter Clancy who were ambushed and killed by the British Army outside Coalisland, County Tyrone, on 16 February.

The following week the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that adopted the Towards a Lasting Peace document was held in the Ballyfermot Community Centre. That was the venue because in November 1991 Dublin City Council had barred Sinn Féin from the Mansion House. The climate of political reaction against republicanism and historical revisionism was at its height. After a storm of hysteria led by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil TD James McDaid had been forced to step down as Taoiseach Charles Haughey's nominee for Minister of State for Defence in a Cabinet reshuffle because he had given evidence on affidavit at the trial of a Donegal republican 12 years earlier.

The campaign for the repeal of Articles Two and Three of the 1937 Constitution was at its height. Its most prominent supporter was Fine Gael leader John Bruton. A climate had been created, with the aid of Section 31 censorship and virtual apartheid against republicans and advanced nationalists, that made such a political alignment possible. It co-incided with an intensified loyalist campaign of assassination aimed especially at Sinn Féin members and supporters.

In spite of all this there was a spirit of defiance at the 1992 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. ``Sinn Féin is not going away'' was the message and so it proved to be in the following two years when the party's peace strategy developed. In place were the elements - the Hume-Adams dialogue, the involvement of the Reynolds government, the White House engagement - that were to lead to the peace process.

The reactionary, revisionist, anti-nationalist voices who had been so loud for years at first railed against the Hume-Adams dialogue and the ensuing peace process. But the extent of public support for the new initiative soon silenced all but the most extreme of the begrudgers. A new political climate had been created, particularly in the 26 Counties.

Speaking in Sligo last weekend Sinn Féin Vice-President Pat Doherty put it this way:

``For years nationalist Ireland, North and South, had been subjected to a relentless barrage from a small but powerful number of well-placed people telling them that partition was here to stay, that a united Ireland was not only not achievable but positively undesirable. The unionists were portrayed as reasonable and moderate, victims of a republican campaign to drive them out of Ireland. And the British? They were honourable and honest brokers trying to bring about reform, if indeed reform was really needed. The peace process exposed those lies.''

The reasons for the breakdown of what will come in time to be known as the First Peace Process have been thoroughly analysed. The reponsibility of the British government and the unionists is well known. But five years on from Towards a Lasting Peace it is useful for republicans to assess the gains made. These include:

The reawakening of public consciousness on the national question in the 26 Counties.
The exposure of the sectarian nature of the Six Counties both nationally and internationally.
The exposure of the intransigence of unionism.
The ending of the myth of the British government's `neutrality' in the conflict.
The internationalisation of the Irish national question.
The ending of direct government broadcasting censorship of Sinn Féin in Ireland and Britain.
The harnessing of new support for Sinn Féin and republicanism.
Republicans have shown that real all-party negotiations leading to a resolution of the conflict, with Sinn Féin playing a central role, can be brought about. But the political will must be there on the part primarily of the British government and also essentially of the unionists. Only political pressure can end the present deadlock and that is necessarily pressure from all the forces, national and international, that nationalist Ireland can bring to bear on the British government.

The evolution of the Sinn Féin peace strategy provided the best hope in over 20 years for the resolution of the conflict, the catalyst for the creation of a new political dispensation which, it was hoped, would take the gun out of Irish politics and ensure that no more young Irishmen or women had to lay down their lives for freedom. Five years on from the publication of Towards a Lasting Peace the political landscape has changed radically. Republicans need to be conscious of their central role in bringing that about and their potential to create even more fundamental change which will transform Irish society.
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