Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The hands of history: Two worlds come together to broker a new era of hope

And so it has come to pass. The day that most people in the UK never thought to witness in our lifetimes. Adams and Paisley sit side by side in a power sharing Northern Irish government.

They did not shake hands, but the sight of the two men sitting together was epoch making on it's own.

The substance of what they said was breathtaking enough, but the way they did it was even more phenomenal: they sat calmly side by side, exuding a sense of purpose and the intention of doing serious business together.

The picture of Belfast's two commanding political figures, flanked by their senior lieutenants, carried a subliminal but unambiguous message: after 3,700 deaths the Troubles are over and real politics can begin.

The two warriors of the Troubles believe they can work together. The statements they delivered in the ornate surroundings of a Stormont dining-room were exquisitely crafted to avoid giving anyone offence.

The big news they contained was that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party will be going into government together, launching a new era and underpinning the peace process with a political foundation.

But even more striking was the absence of accompanying threats or conditions - no begrudgery, no condemnations, no blame game. The two listened carefully and politely to each other, conveying something new in Belfast politics - mutual respect.

When idiots on the right espouse their mantra that there can be no negotiation with terrorists, one should remind them that, without negotiation, there would be no peace in N. Ireland. And that, whilst it is right that the IRA's methods were condemned as wrong and immoral, only a fool would allow those methods to blind oneself to the rightness of their cause. Catholics had for years lived as second rate citizens in a system controlled by their Protestant rivals. And only by addressing that fundamental wrong could one ever hope to end the violence.

There are many lessons to be taken from this. As Bush insists that Iran suspend Uranium enrichment before any talks can begin, and as Israel repeats their tired mantra that there can be no negotiation until Palestinian violence ends, it is worth looking at how the British solved this intractable conflict.

High praise indeed must be reserved for John Major, the Conservative leader who secretly went against everything his party believed in and began secret talks with the IRA regarding what they required to bring the violence to a halt.

Their main requirement, it turned out, was fairness. They did not want to live in a political system that so blatantly favoured their sectarian rivals. At this point Major could have emulated so many Conservatives who went before him and insisted that the IRA disarm before any talks could begin. However, Major had the good sense to realise that the IRA were well aware that it was only their propensity to cause violence that had ever captured his attention and that they would be unlikely to give up the only tool in their armour until they could see a political advantage in them doing so.

This sensible policy was continued by Blair, asking the IRA to destroy their weaponry only when a power sharing structure had been established and, even then, doing so in a way that was secret and which did not humiliate Britain's longest standing foe.

There are many on the right who love to throw around phrases like, "One must never reward terrorism", seeing the only solution to such problems as military ones. Northern Ireland is the greatest existing example of the foolishness of such a stance. There are few military tactics that the British did not try over the past forty years, including many at the more extreme end of the spectrum. This succeeded only in politicising a new generation of terrorists by emphasising the unfairness of the system under which they were being forced to live.

Only by treating the underlying cause can one hope to defeat the cancer of terrorism. That's a lesson that can be applied to almost everywhere that terrorism flourishes. Grant the Palestinians a territorially contiguous state based on the 1967 guidelines and, not only will the suicide bombs stop, but al-Qaeda will lose their most potent recruiting tool. Treat the cause, not the symptoms.

When one does so, miracles like the one we are today witnessing in Northern Ireland become possible.

Yesterday's news was greeted, even in Northern Ireland, with open mouthed disbelief. Two of the world's most bitter rivals had agreed to work together.

Mr Paisley announced the timetable for devolution with a phrase no one has ever heard him use before: "Today we have agreed with Sinn Fein that this date will be Tuesday 8th May 2007." He added: "We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future."

The two statements were studiously symmetrical. Mr Adams provided an echo by accepting that "the relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy." He continued: "The discussions and agreement between our two parties shows the potential of what can now be achieved."

George Bush's "with us or against us" mentality might play well amongst his own supporters. But, when looked at in the context of Northern Ireland and the objective of achieving real change, one swiftly realises that people with that mindset are part of the problem rather than the solution.

If Blair had had more influence in Washington in the days immediately following 9-11, and had he applied the same mindset that he applied to Northern Ireland to the problems faced by the USA on that terrible day, we might have made saner choices and been in a much better place than where we currently find ourselves. He didn't. And that's a loss for all of us.

However, as someone who once supported him and has since become one of his many critics, I am pleased to concede that, at last, Blair has something on his legacy that does not say "Iraq."

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2 comments:

Cyberotter said...

Good job Kel nice post.

Kel said...

Thanks Cyberotter!