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6 December 2001 Edition

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Wishful thinking or sinister plot?

BY JIM GIBNEY


The British Secretary of State for the Six Counties, John Reid, made a speech in Liverpool at the Institute for Irish Studies, on 21 November. This speech has gone done in the political parlance as the 'cold house for Protestants' speech. In other words, a speech aimed at addressing a contrived development arising from the peace process: alienation among unionists from the political process.

On closer examination, the speech potentially represents much more than that.

After reading John Reid's speech I asked myself two questions: Is there a responsible British government out there? Will there ever be a British government that will accept unconditionally its responsibility for creating the political and sectarian mess that is the Six Counties?

Or are we to be forever plagued with British governments and their appointees who filter their analysis and solutions through the eyes and pens of unionist civil servants at the 'NIO', who perpetuate the mess by presenting a bias and false view of history and an assessment of current political reality which is not only superficial but is also bunkum?

Mr Reid sets out to reassure unionists that he will not be a party to a political plan that creates a society that leaves them outside it. Not only does his speech fail to do that but also he manages to insult nationalists across the Six Counties and pours scorn on the legitimate aspiration of a united Ireland. Reid's speech is every bit as insulting as Tony Blair's at Belfast's King's Hall when he declared that there would not be a united Ireland in his lifetime.

Tony Blair was entitled to the benefit of just being new to the job. Several years later, Mr. Reid cannot seek refuge in that excuse.

When it comes to Ireland and making speeches, the first thought any British government minister should have is about the role the British played in creating the mess, acknowledge that indisputable fact, apologise for it, make amends and then say this is what we intend to do to help improve the situation.

On this occasion we did not get that approach. Instead, Mr. Reid served us up an unpalatable dish where everyone else is to blame but them. Of course, for the record, buried in his speech is the single phrase, 'including at the hands of the British government' as if that is enough recognition of their responsibility.

But what is most offensive about the speech is the deliberate use of the religious term Catholic instead of nationalist. We are told the problem in the Six Counties is that Catholics are full of 'paradoxes and contradictions'; that they are 'uneasy' in search of a 'home'; that really all they are looking for is 'reassurance', not a 'state'. And that it is a 'simplistic notion' to equate the northern Catholic community with Irish constitutional unity.

And anyway, "Catholics are part of the establishment as never before". That Catholics are integrated into the highest levels of society and that a Catholic heads the civil service "for the first time". It only took 80 years! I wonder why it doesn't strike Mr. Reid that he is a Catholic and a unionist and therefore being a Catholic, even one that grew up in the Six Counties, does not automatically mean that you are a nationalist or a republican.

That the Good Friday Agreement implicitly recognises the reality that Catholics in the administration is not the problem. The problem is that nationalists and republicans are excluded from political power by those who have it, many of whom are Catholics.

And then the anthropologist in Mr. Reid discovers a new breed of person in the Six Counties, "a non-political cCatholic". And this specimen, we are told, does not desire "a particular constitutional framework". Now I wonder who this person votes for? Is it the SDLP, who on paper are a united Ireland party, or is it Sinn Féin, which campaigns for a united Ireland?

What we do know is that between them both parties have mobilised the biggest number of Catholics to vote in the last election since partition.. Then again, maybe this person doesn't vote. Whatever they do, they aren't without influence, as they have now been discovered by the British government and are influencing their policy, well for the time being anyway.

Do I have to remind Mr. Reid that his government is, along with the Irish government, architects of the Good Friday Agreement? That this agreement exists because 'Northern Ireland' is a failed political entity. That the political institutions are so constructed because normal democratic politics don't function.

With this reality in mind, why, in a seven-page speech, is 'Northern Ireland' mentioned 22 times, the Good Friday Agreement nine times and the 'island of Ireland once? Does Mr. Reid think if he mentions 'Northern Ireland' mantra-like it goes down well in Glengall Street? Or does he think such repetition will of itself make the place that which it cannot become: "A tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial society which truly values diversity..." Just like his view of Britain?

When it suits him, he invokes the principles of the Good Friday Agreement not to highlight the reason for its existence but to claim that support for it is further evidence that nationalists have abandoned their desire for a united Ireland.

Mr. Reid tells us that he is Scottish and proud to be British. He rightly praises those in Britain who fought Hitler. But he then tells us Irish that it is a 'barren struggle' to seek constitutional reunification. This from a man who is responsible for 30,000 troops occupying the Six Counties actively preventing such reunification. This is of course the British government's 'consent' principle at work.

Mr. Reid correctly states that sectarianism is a 'virus', which taints, blights and corrupts all that it touches. He does not identify its origins or how such sectarianism has survived in the north.

He ignores the fact that the partition of Ireland was as a result of a sectarian headcount. That successive British governments permitted the unionists to establish a 'Protestant State for a Protestant people'. That the state was shored up by the anti-Catholic sectarian Orange Order and Protestant militias like the RUC and the 'B' Specials. He does not acknowledge the role of successive British governments in sustaining sectarianism by failing to bring forward policies, which would help eradicate it.

Instead he says he is 'amazed' at the lack of 'concerted political leadership' of others, of course not himself or the British government. It really has nothing to do with them. It is home grown, peculiar to Ireland.

Reid's speech is a classic 'white man's burden view of the world. The poor British are in the middle of two warring factions. On the one hand the Catholics are 'resentful' on the other hand the Protestants are experiencing a 'precarious belonging'.

He may well be right about both realities but when is the British government going to accept that they are not a referee. They are a protagonist.

The political implications of this speech could be far reaching for nationalists and republicans. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, David Trimble has used every excuse to frustrate and slow down the changes promised in the Agreement. He has done so by claiming that nationalists are getting too many 'concessions' what he means of course are 'rights'. Does this speech indicate the British government now share that view?

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