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31 July 1997 Edition

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Real test will come with talks

Micheal Mac Donncha writes that the test of a new peace process is whether it can change the course of history.

Seventy-five years ago this month the disastrous consequences of the British Government of Ireland Act of 1920 were seen in the entrenchment of partition, Civil War in the 26 Counties and a subjugated nationalist population in the Six Counties. Nationalist comrade killed nationalist comrade, Protestant was set against Catholic by an Orange regime in Belfast, the walls of division were raised and none could realise that it was only the beginning of a nightmare that would last for most of the century.

Such were the results of long-term British government policy to retain their imperial grip on Ireland, and their short-term expediency to extricate themselves from the greater part of the country where their writ could no longer run.

The challenge of the new peace process, 75 years after that tragic summer of 1922, is nothing less than to change the course of Irish history away from the narrow channel carved by imperialism, and in a new direction determined by the Irish people themselves, acting freely without outside impediment.

The peace process has seen the leaders of nationalist Ireland (first Reynolds/Hume/Adams and now Ahern/Hume/Adams) for the first time in the latest phase of the conflict, reaching key points points of agreement. These include the need for inclusive negotiations to achieve a democratic peace settlement and the recognition that an internal settlement in the Six Counties is not an option. While there are obvious differences between the nationalist parties the dynamic they created came from the ending of the isolation of nationalists in the Six Counties.

Britain had successfully internalised the conflict in the Six Counties. The peace process has nationalised it and internationalised it - not in the sense of spreading conflict itself but placing it in its true all-Ireland context and in the context of Britain's relationship with Ireland and the rest of the world.

Only by recognising these realtities can we understand the determination of the unionists and the Major government to stall and destroy the peace process. But the political dynamic which arose out of the Sinn Féin peace strategy survived all the destructive efforts of its enemies. Speaking after meeting John Hume and Bertie Ahern at Government Buildings in Dublin on 25 July Gerry Adams said:

``It has been a long, difficult, often frustrating and dangerous task to get to this point. We have confounded those who pronounced the peace process dead and disappointed those who wanted it to die.''

At that meeting the three leaders of nationalist Ireland made clear their determination to see real talks begin on 15 September. It was a meeting just as historic and significant as the Reynolds/Hume/Adams meeting of September 1994 yet it was largely played down in the media. Similarly played down was the significant speech made by Bertie Ahern on 24 July.

In this speech the difference in political emphasis of the new government from that of the previous Bruton administration was clear. He said that the ``Government of Ireland Act of 1920 and subsequent constitutional development failed to resolve the the conflict of political alleigances within Ireland. A deep settlement would... address and overcome previous failures going back to 1920 to achieve the basis of a just and durable solution''. He said that ``in the longer term a united Ireland achieved by agreement still offers the best and most durable basis for peace and stability''.

A measure of the extent to which nationalists have advanced the equality agenda in the political debate was given in Ahern's remarks where he said:

``Those who have been badly treated in the past need to be assured that neither selfish strategic considerations on the part of the British government nor mob rule, intimidation or violence from any quarter will be allowed to upset the free play of democratic forces, as they have done a number of times before.''

He also spoke of a ``radical renegotiation on a three-strand basis not just of the Anglo-Irish Agreement but of the 1920-21 settlement''.

Of course the harshest test of these words will come in negotiations. It is then that the Dublin government will be asked to represent Irish national interests.

At a meeting in Dublin on 29 July Foreign Minister Ray Burke and British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam reiterated their commitment to start substantive political negotiations on 15 September. This further sharpened the focus on the unionists.

The question now is will the unionists again be allowed to stifle the potential for political progress. They know change is inevitable so their only strategy is postponement of the inevitible. But this is a gross failure of leadership on their part. Gerry Adams's challenge to the unionists this week was:

``Who could be afraid of talking? Why should unionists be afraid to sit down at the table? The desire of the vast majority of the people on this island, including unionists, is that their leaders lead. That is what Sinn Féin is going to do.''

The challenge to make history rather than repeat it faces all parties, not least the unionists and the British government, as 15 September approaches.
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