Talking to the IRA

November 30, 1993

The revelation that the British government has been in back-channel communication with the Irish Republican Army hit London this past weekend as a scandal. It produced heated questions in the House of Commons and demands for the resignation of the secretary for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew. But it was no scandal. What would have been scandalous would have been refusal of the British government to entertain such communications.

Since this generation of the IRA grew from the ashes in 1970, several such back channels have been attempted, as reported unofficially long after the fact. None came to anything. This one might not, either. But the political goals of the IRA's twin organization, Sinn Fein, are legitimate, as long as they are pursued politically and not violently.

It is not the British government but the people of Ireland that Sinn Fein needs to convince. In democratic terms, Sinn Fein is a minority party. The IRA (or Sinn Fein) is not the authentic voice of the Catholic or nationalist minority in Northern Ireland, or of the Irish Republic. Rather, it is a significant minority within that minority in the North, and an insignificant minority in the Republic.

It is also a self-appointed guerrilla-terrorist movement that in the name of Irish unity attacks symbols of the true unity, such as the railroad connecting Dublin to Belfast or the electric grid covering both parts of the island. It also -- routinely and self-righteously -- assassinates, extorts and bullies and makes life hell for many people, Catholic and Protestant, Irish and British. It should stop.

Part of the IRA wants to cease fire and get in on the dialogue. That was apparent in talks between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Social Democratic and Labor Party leader John Hume, seeking a formula for a cease-fire. But the IRA wants London to commit itself to eventual "withdrawal," (a euphemism for expulsion of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom) first, while London wants the IRA to stop shooting without preconditions.

The paranoia of Ulster Unionist politicians feeds on fears of the IRA getting its way. This paranoia also expresses itself in the terrorism of groups known variously as UFF and UVF in the Protestant community that commit more assassinations of Catholics than the IRA does of Protestants and soldiers. British authorities are starting to catch them and intercept their arms shipments. "Loyalist" terrorism against an Irish unification that Protestants did not accept is a larger potential problem than IRA terrorism against the status quo.

An end to IRA violence would not end Northern Ireland's difficulties. But Sir Patrick Mayhew and his predecessors have had the wit to understand that it would be a first step, and have kept the line open in case the right message ever comes.

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