An Escalation of Reasonableness

Conor Gearty

  • To Raise up a New Northern Ireland: Articles and Speeches 1998-2000 by David Trimble
    Belfast Press, 166 pp, £5.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 9539287 1 3

I had been living in England for just eight months when Bobby Sands died in the Maze Prison hospital after spending 66 days on hunger strike. Speaking on the day of his death in the House of Commons, Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, described him as a ‘convicted criminal’ who ‘chose to take his own life’. This did not stop a crowd of nearly a hundred thousand people attending his funeral in Belfast. One week later, Francis Hughes died, and eight more men – Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Michael Devine – starved themselves to death in the months that followed.

During that summer of 1981, the Northern Ireland crisis came closer than ever before or since to carnage. Levels of mob as well as of subversive violence were high. In Dublin two thousand people attacked the British Embassy. An IRA bomb exploded during the official opening by the Queen of the Sullom Voe oil terminal. Sitting in my college in Cambridge, I was thinking that perhaps the Provos were right after all, that the stupid inflexibility of ‘the Brits’, with their obsessive determination to remain in Ireland, was the source of the ‘Irish problem’. But I was from a rabidly anti-IRA family. My uncle’s business had been blown up by the IRA. Pat Cooney, the controversial and (some said) reactionary Irish Minister for Justice, had been a frequent visitor to our home during the 1970s. At university in Dublin I had been happy to be associated with him, and I was proud, too, that Mountbatten’s killers had been spotted at a road block in my home town, and caught by a local Garda. In the year of Mountbatten’s death, I had gone on a debating tour of America as a representative of the English Speaking Union. Before the hunger strikes I had spoken fervently against Sinn Féin men at university debates, including at the Cambridge Union. But now here I was, tempted by the Republican view. I wasn’t alone. During the first half of the 1980s, the number of ‘armchair Provos’ and ‘sneaking regarders’ of IRA idealism and determination reached record levels. When the IRA almost blew up Thatcher in Brighton in 1984, many ordinary Irish people had to control their surge of pride that it had been the Irish (rather than the miners, the steelworkers, the ethnic minorities or any other ‘enemy within’) who had nearly got her.

It is appropriate that the opening images of Endgame in Ireland showed the funerals of the hunger strikers. As the first of the four programmes made clear, it was at this lowest point in the conflict that the chance for a return from the brink presented itself: the hunger strikes ‘opened the road to the endgame in Northern Ireland’. Forty days into his protest, Sands had secured election to the House of Commons, and after his death the Sinn Féin member Owen Carron won the resultant by-election with an increased majority. (Naturally, the British authorities had rushed legislation through to stop other prisoners following Sands’s lead.) Immediately after Carron’s victory, Provisional Sinn Féin announced its intention to stand in future Northern Ireland as well as Westminster elections. On 31 October 1981, Danny Morrison, a leading member of Sinn Féin, made his famous rallying cry to the faithful gathered at the Party’s Ard Fheis: ‘Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?’

These two questions – both stimulated by the success of the hunger strikes in broadening Sinn Féin’s appeal – have framed the politics of Northern Ireland during the last twenty years. They eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement and the hopeful developments since then. There is reason behind Bobby Sands’s sister’s outburst in the final programme, about the IRA’s ‘sell-out’: for keepers of the flame of 1981 it must be galling that the main consequence of the success of the hunger strikers’ extremism has been to make compromise possible.

The general election of June 1983 confirmed the wisdom of Morrison’s twin-track strategy. From a non-existent base, Sinn Féin polled 102,701 votes, putting them within reach of the 137,012 achieved by the constitutional nationalist SDLP. The vote was not as spectacular in retrospect as it seemed at the time: Carron lost his seat, Morrison failed in Mid-Ulster, and the only real sensation was the victory of Gerry Adams over the old nationalist stalwart Gerry Fitt in West Belfast. Local and European elections in 1984 and 1985 were to show that 1983 had not started a Republican bandwagon, but the British authorities panicked. It wasn’t so much that militant Republicans had won 13.4 per cent of the vote in 1983, more the horrifying prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the main Catholic party in the Province. Ulster and British officials and politicians knew all about the sectarianism that had been used first to construct Northern Ireland’s borders and then to set in place a Unionist hegemony, but the language of constitutional legitimacy could carry on being used as long as it was possible to believe that the majority of ‘decent’ Catholics abhorred the ‘terrorism’ of the IRA. Now British democracy threatened to expose this pretence.

It was far too early for direct talks with the militants. Besides, Thatcher was still alive (no thanks to the IRA) and thriving in office. Negotiation had to take place at three removes, with the British Government dealing with the Irish Government, the Irish Government with the SDLP and the SDLP with their own nationalist hinterland in an effort to show that they – not the IRA – could deliver the goods. On 19 November 1984, a joint communiqué was issued in which the Irish and British leaders said that the ‘identities of both the majority and the minority communities in Northern Ireland should be recognised and respected and reflected in the structures and processes of Northern Ireland in ways acceptable to both communities’. Almost exactly a year later, the same two leaders (Thatcher and Garrett FitzGerald) concluded the more far-reaching Anglo-Irish Agreement. In November 1986, Sinn Féin voted to end its traditional policy of not putting up candidates for the Dáil. During the next two years, both the SDLP (publicly) and the Irish Government (privately) held meetings with the Republican leadership. Then, in November 1989, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, publicly admitted that it was ‘difficult to envisage the military defeat’ of a force such as the IRA ‘because of the circumstances under which they operate’ and that if a political debate were to ‘start within the terrorist community’ and they ‘were to decide that the moment had come when they wished to withdraw from their activities, then I think the Government would need to be imaginative … as to how the process should be managed’. A year later, he declared that the ‘British Government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. Around the same time, a channel was opened up for direct discussion between the British Government and the Republican leadership.

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