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15 May 1997 Edition

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Keep the tide of change flowing

BY MICHEAL MacDONNCHA

     
For the first time since 1969 the national question is a major issue in a general election in the 26 Counties
John Bruton is nothing less than a national disaster. Today he ``goes to the country'' in a general election. Millions of people are wishing he would leave the country altogether. Sadly there is a possibility that he could become Taoiseach again.

Last weekend he insulted the intelligence of the entire electorate in the 26 Counties and of the 126,921 people who voted Sinn Féin in the Six Counties.

Carefully pre-arranged appearances on the This Week radio programme and on Farrell on RTE tv were Bruton's first major interviews of the year. They were designed to limit the damage done to him by the Ben Dunne scandal and to kick off the Coalition election campaign. On both programmes he was given the easiest of rides by the interviewers.

On the Dunne payment-to-politicians scandal Bruton expected people to believe that there was no contradiction between his evidence to the Dunne Tribunal at Dublin Castle three weeks ago and his evidence to the Beef Tribunal in 1992. At the latter he said he was not involved in soliciting contributions for Fine Gael while at the former he said he had been ``intensively involved'' in approaching business people for money.

Bruton was completely unapologetic about his spurned advice to nationalists in the Six Counties not to vote Sinn Féin on 1 May. Launching the Sinn Féin local election campaign on Friday Gerry Adams said that voters had given their answer to Bruton by ``quietly and good humouredly ignoring his advice'' and voting in great numbers for Sinn Féin. But on Sunday Bruton still maintained that it was ``regrettable'' that so many people voted Sinn Féin, once again interpreting that vote as a ``vote for violence''. He said he would never be neutral as between Sinn Féin and the SDLP. The Fine Gael leader is set to get another firm answer from the electorate next week with Sinn Féin ready to increase its local government mandate in the Six Counties. Pat Doherty, the party's Donegal North East general election candidate, asked: ``What dignity and respect is Mr. Bruton according the 127,000 people in the North who voted Sinn Féin?''

Bruton went on to attack Bertie Ahern for saying on Saturday that he would meet Sinn Féin after he was elected Taoiseach. This was pounced on by Fine Gael because Ahern had not said that the meeting would be in the context of an IRA ceasefire. This was later clarified by Ahern but the Fine Gael tactic is clear - attack Fianna Fáil for its `association' with Sinn Féin. At the end of April Fine Gael Justice Minister Nora Owen accused Ahern of ``providing excuses for the gunmen and bombers''.

This is the first election in decades where such exchanges have occurred because for the first time since 1969 the national question is a major issue in a general election in the 26 Counties. For the sake of the peace process it would be better of course if there was more agreement across the parties, with a united nationalist approach towards the new British government. But Bruton's deplorable handling of the peace process has made that impossible.

Bruton met Tony Blair for the first time in Downing Street on 8 May. There was a welcome for the speed with which they met but Bruton's weakness means that he is ill-fitted to take advantage of the new situation in Britain. That was clear from the appalling speech he made at the Oxford Union, the university debating society, the night before. It was not reported in detail and it does not make for pleasant reading.

The speech might just as easily have been delivered by Patrick Mayhew. Not a word of criticism of the British government, past or present, was uttered. Even Ted Heath was quoted favourably. Bruton said that it was a myth that ``nothing happened'' during the IRA ceasefire. He listed a number of items that he claimed represented progress, failing to distinguish between, for example, the release of some prisoners early by the Dublin government and the deterioration of conditions for prisoners held by the British government.

In one outrageous claim he boasted that during the ceasefire ``both governments lifted broadcasting restrictions on Sinn Féin representatives''. In fact Section 31 in the 26 Counties was lifted in January 1994, eight months before the IRA ceasefire. Bruton was then in opposition and slammed the move by the Fianna Fáil/Labour government as ``undemocratic''.

Bruton told his British audience that republicans wanted to ``combine syntax and semtex''. His excursion into the history of Home Rule completely ignored the Tory-Unionist alliance and the role of the British establishment in fomenting sectarianism and setting up partition. Most of all his speech showed his complete lack of understanding - deliberate or otherwise - of nationalists in the Six Counties and of Irish republicans. He called on both nationalists and unionists to ``make more sparing use of the term `rights'''. While past unionist regimes were criticised the British government escaped unfavourable comment.

Thus instead of defending the rights of Irish citizens who voted for Sinn Féin and moving the peace process onto a new plane, Bruton has done the opposite and played to an old British agenda.

For its part Sinn Féin has been asserting the rights of its voters. The party has demanded that the democratic verdict be recognised and that the British and Dublin governments should meet with the Sinn Féin MPs.

Bertie Ahern met Gerry Adams in Dublin on Wednesday and the Sinn Féin leader briefed the Fianna Fáil leader on the efforts Sinn Féin is making to reconstruct the peace process in the changed conditions following the Westminster election. After the meeting Adams said:

``Fianna Fáil have played a positive and central role in building the peace process both in government and since. It is clear that an effective peace process requires a focussed and energetic approach from an Irish government. It is our hope that this will also be the approach of the British government. The two governments should commence immediate talks with Sinn Féin.''

Also on Wednesday the Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd ruled that the Sinn Féin MPs would not be given facilities in Westminster unless they took the Oath of Alleigance. But whatever John Bruton and those in Westminster who fear republicans may think, the tide of change is set to continue flowing. The local elections in the Six Counties on 21 May and the general election in the 26 Counties are the next markers for change. It is up to republicans to make that change happen.
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