Unionists need a direct line to IRA

After being attacked by Ian Paisley on his suggestion last week that the DUP should cut out the middle men and talk directly to the IRA’s Army Council, Alex Kane argues that this is simply what successive British governments have been doing since 1972.Being taken to task by Ian Paisley is a little like being sat upon by a large jelly—it does no real harm and leaves no lasting impression. In an article in Wednesday’s News Letter, he wrote: “I find it also highly insulting that your columnist Alex Kane, in his article in your newspaper on Saturday, said that the DUP has nothing to lose by sitting down with the SF/IRA Army Council. I would say to Mr. Kane that some politicians do keep their word!”

The “Big Man” is being a little unfair. Almost four years ago I urged the UUP to meet the Army Council. Also, I was the first commentator to argue that the DUP would be more “…inventive, flexible and imaginative than their critics would give them credit for…” I stand by that judgement. I believe that the DUP, having abandoned the policy of wrecking and walking, is now serious about a deal. More importantly, I think it is prepared to take some political risks to secure such a deal.

So let me explain the thinking behind my suggestion in last week’s column. The IRA remains a key, if unseen player, in the political process. There won’t be a deal without their approval, and the DUP won’t be in a devolved government of any sort if it doesn’t have the IRA’s imprimatur. I wish that were not the case, but for so long as the British government indulges rather than destroys the organisation, then it remains an unpleasant reality for unionists.

That being the case, why not eyeball them? If Sinn Fein claim not to speak for them (and, let’s face it, the DUP isn’t even speaking to Gerry Adams yet), then at what stage do we actually know what is or isn’t acceptable to the Army Council?

The process has collapsed on a number of occasions, most notably last October, because the UUP wasn’t satisfied with the IRA’s responses. Either through misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or mischievous mis-direction, the IRA has done one thing when we expected them to do another. The same thing could easily happen again in the latest round of talks.

The DUP claims it cannot do a deal with Sinn Fein until it has satisfactory guarantees on IRA arsenals, activities and continuing existence. In other words, the DUP has tied the IRA’s response to the creation of any new deal. So why the refusal to talk to them? It doesn’t have to be Mr. Paisley or Mr. Robinson. It can be a third party. I will even offer to do it myself if it helps.

The IRA hasn’t gone away of its own accord. It hasn’t been forced into defeat by the assorted powers of the UK State. Instead, since July 1972 it has been talked to, privately and continuously, by successive governments. That backdoor process will continue if the present negotiations stumble again.

So, instead of relying on the opinions and interpretations of others, wouldn’t it make more sense if unionists (both the DUP and UUP) knew exactly, and from the horse’s own mouth, what the IRA’s ongoing problems were?

It wasn’t my intention to be “insulting,” Mr. Paisley, merely to offer a possible route whereby unionists could resolve the primary difficulties once and for all.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 18th September 2004