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30 April 1998 Edition

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Change is a permanent condition

By Brian Campbell

Change is a permanent condition.

You must reconcile strategy, tactics and principles.

You can make a wrong choice in your strategy but if you do it as a united force you can later change your course.

Those were three comments made by Mac Maharaj, South Africa's Minister for Transport, at an open meeting in Crossmaglen on Tuesday night. Here was a legendary revolutionary - a guerrilla leader who spent twelve brutal years in Robben Island prison - speaking in the revolutionary heartland of South Armagh and sharing his experiences of the negotiated settlement in South Africa.

He stated clearly that there were major differences between the two situations and he felt it inappropriate to refer to the detail of the agreement. Instead, he gave the audience of 200 republicans a history of the twists and turns of the ANC's last ten years of negotiation and transformation.

He was an impressive speaker, clear and analytical. He came across as a man who had journeyed from guerrilla fighter to politician and stayed a revolutionary. South Africa's transformation has only begun and many painful compromises had to be made by the black majority in the transition to formal democracy. Economic democracy is still a long way off and the ANC leadership is acutely aware of that - despite what John Pilger may say.

So what can Mac Maharaj teach Irish republicans? In one sense, nothing. The hard decisions which have to be made in the coming days are ours to make and no other struggle is a template for this struggle. We are the experts in making revolution in Ireland. And that was emphasised by Mac Maharaj. We know the conditions and the political currents and the changing forces. To those we must bring our own tactics and strategies to bear.

But on another level.Maharaj's experience is extremely valuable. Every revolutionary movement - if it is successful - is faced with the type of choices which republicans are now faced with. If it is successful. Because of course the movement which does not build its political strength in order to enable it to strike out in new directions will never be faced with tough choices.

``A dream killed is one thing; a space opened for a dream to be fulfilled is another thing,'' said Maharaj. And in that he captured the essence of the debate. Does the document represent a space opened to allow political action to transform the situation?

``Does it introduce a fluidity into a situation that was logjammed - a situation that gives you a step forward?'' asked Maharaj. Or does it make the logjamworse?

That is the dilemma. And the irony is that, as revolutionaries, we work for change but, like everyone else, when change looms there is doubt and hesitation.

But anyone who has taken part in meetings and briefings over these last weeks has come away speaking about the vibrancy and the enthusiasm for political debate. There is no doubt that there is something exhilarating about being at the forefront of struggle at this time. When the decisions are finally made it is clear that - in the manner of everything we do in this struggle - the next phase will be embraced with focused determination. These are times for bold decisions and bold actions, no matter what decisions are taken.

One of the most valuable lessons from the South African experience is the importance of mass action. Changes will not be made unless the people are mobilised to push them through. Changes in policing will only follow popular demonstrations demanding a new policing service - unless we want to put our faith in a Commission headed by a former Conservative NIO minister. So it is in all areas which demand change. The need for political activism is never more urgently needed.

Another aspect of all the meetings I have attended has been the calls for unity. It cannot be emphasised enough. This struggle must move forward united if its objectives are to be fulfilled.

The republicans who attended the meeting with Mac Maharaj were conscious of a sense of history. It is not that the hand of history is on republicans' shoulders. Rather, ours is that hand of history.

I spoke to Bik McFarlane on Wednesday after he had come from a meeting in Long Kesh. 120 POWs, including the women POWs from Maghaberry, were visited by two of the ANC delegation, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa. Along with them was a Sinn Féin delegation of Michael Browne, Mary Ellen Campbell, Cathal Crumley, Gerry Kelly, Alex Maskey, Mary McArdle, Martina McIlkenny, Sean Moore, Siobhan O'Hanlon and Sue Ramsey.

An historic moment at which the mood was lively, vibrant and strong.

That mood is everywhere and, allied with cool heads, it will produce a revolutionary decision over the next weeks.
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