Ireland, Britain and ‘the war on terror’

Bruce Arnold with some interesting thoughts from last Saturday’s Irish Independent on the Bush Adminstration’s role in reinforcing the irreversibility of the ending of the IRA’s campaign, and targeting of ‘terrorist’ groups throughout the west. Long term support for the rule of law is, in his view, the acid test for any further movement on the St Andrews Agreement.By Bruce Arnold

In a climate of retribution and blame, following the electoral reversals faced by George Bush, it is important to recognize how significant his otherwise ill-named ‘War on Terror’ has been in the context of Ireland and Britain.

It has had a two-fold impact. It has reinforced the irreversibility of the enforced ending of IRA terror campaigns. It helped in the elimination of IRA arms dumps. It put a partial clamp on Sinn Fein criminality. It narrowed the road forward for Sinn Fein-IRA, bringing about serious changes of direction and helping to impose on that organization a choice in favour of exclusive democracy.

The progress towards this is far from complete; but there is no going back, and it is as a result of the comprehensive approach of the Bush administration towards terror that the part of it that reached into the North found a logical target there, and the impact was beneficial to us all.

The second achievement was to intensify police strategy, particularly within the United Kingdom. Though the energy behind this has been mainly directed at al-Qa’eda terrorism, it has signalled the targeting of all terrorism, inclusive of what was once the world’s most sophisticated terrorist organization, the IRA.

Again, the job is well short of completion. It still lacks the closing down of this illegal army, and it still requires the democratic consent of Sinn Fein to policing as well as the other consents over crime and coercion and recognition of the courts and of legislation. But the slow conversion of the party to principles that bring it closer to the other political parties on this island has been advanced by Bush. What brought electoral reversal in the US, boosting the Democrats, has been to our advantage. This will continue. Ironically, it is a mark of what has already been achieved that Gerry Adams went to the United States this week on the fund-raising visit that was blocked a year ago.

There is a third dimension to this, and it is evident in the developing situation in Northern Ireland. Once Ian Paisley made his speech at the end of the St Andrew’s talks, moving himself and his party into a positive mode, though with caveats, he assumed a controlling position in the forward progress of the whole process. The November 24 deadline has gone, making room for further debate and strengthening the demands by the DUP for Sinn Fein endorsement of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Making progress, when it is brought down to basics, rests on two simple declarations. From the DUP there had to be acceptance of power-sharing with Sinn Fein. In principle this declaration is on the table and the DUP, rightly, will not go further without a parallel declaration on policing from Sinn Fein.

Gerry Adams has tried to circumvent this by claiming that ‘of course Sinn Fein are in favour of policing’. However, this is that familiar verbal trick, of an observation of what might be the case if and when other things happen. We want it more definite than that.

We still face a verbal battlefield and battles do not make much progress when the leaders on either side want to consult with committees. The DUP consulted with party members and the public generally, and got endorsement of its leadership, which is what one would expect from that organization.

It is different with Sinn Fein. There is a deliberate strategy within the organization to stall, relying on the ardfheis to direct on policing. This is a deliberately ponderous mechanism, a denial of the clear position oon expects of leadership.

This is not sufficient progress on which to keep to the timetable. But the two governments will dress it up as such and will try and compromise over the pledge. The DUP will find this unacceptable. Pushing ahead with the legislation on how the power-sharing executive will operate will only worsen the situation.

Both sides in the North – and this now means Sinn Fein and the DUP – face serious issues if unity is to be maintained. But the issues are not equal and opposite and it is wrong of Mark Durcan to describe the reservations from these two parties as “messing and posturing”. The reservations are fundamentally unequal.

What the DUP is insisting on is what all democrats insist on: the rule of law and support for the courts and the police. What Sinn Fein are asking for is a modified police service, suited to them, and their prior approval for other details in the legislative package.

Mark Durcan, for once in his life, should make a judgement based on what has always been central to SDLP policy and that is support for the rule of law.

In the light of the impact Bush has had on this country and on the United Kingdom – in terms of terrorism – the leader of the SDLP needs to reject compromise and side with other political parties, in favour of the conditions all of us would like to see Sinn Fein fulfilling. We do not want fudge any more and, unlike the circumstances that surrounded such negotiations when Trimble was the key Unionist figure, the DUP will not tolerate fudge. Nor should Mark Durcan.