The speed with which the government propitiated republican opinion since last week’s so-called declaration of peace by the IRA suggests a prepared strategy. Within days of this palpably insincere protestation of peace and goodwill the watchtowers were razed in areas effectively owned by the IRA. Three thousand home service troops of the Royal Irish Regiment were told they would be disbanded. Firm promises were given to Sinn Fein that, once devolved government is restored, they could have carte blanche to destroy Northern Ireland’s superlative secondary education system — and no doubt poison the minds of the next generation of Ulster men and women against any idea of Britishness. When republicans and their accomplices in the British government tell Unionists that this beneficent act by the IRA will benefit all of them, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The programme set in train by the Prime Minister — who would like us to think he has cracked the centuries-old problem of Ulster — is one destined to eradicate British influence in the province, against the democratic wishes of the majority of the people there — and without much support, indeed, from the Republic itself, where disgust at the IRA is more pronounced these days than in Britain.
The only pleasure one can take from all this is the prospect of the confrontations that must now follow between the putative First Minister in any devolved assembly, the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, and the part-time Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Peter Hain — who is also Secretary of State for Wales. Mr Hain is one of Mr Blair’s principal toadies, a man who has evinced little sign of ability in any post he has held, but whose climb up the greasy pole has been marked by frequent somersaults and disdain for anything approaching a principle. Dr Paisley, by contrast, has adhered to his own beliefs unflinchingly for more than half a century, and is in no mood to start trading them now. Nor is that growing body of Unionist opinion that has elected him as chief spokesman, having obliterated the Official Unionist party and sent to oblivion the last Unionist leader who tried to treat with republicans, Mr David Trimble. Dr Paisley knows that by sticking to his instincts — that the republican movement cannot be trusted and remains rooted in criminality of one sort or another — he will only strengthen his support. The government, by contrast, faces the uncomfortable prospect of having — perhaps uniquely in its experience — to deal with someone who cannot be bought or cajoled into doing what it wants. It will be a bumpy ride.
Dr Paisley has right on his side in refusing to accept the government’s republican-dictated version of the future of Ulster. The IRA is in no position to demand concessions against the democratic will. Its funding was switched off by the Americans after 9/11. Its ludicrous claims to propriety were destroyed by the Ulster Bank raid. Its grass-roots support in Ulster was shattered by the murder of Robert McCartney, and by the dignified and articulate campaign mounted against the IRA by Mr McCartney’s family. The hostility to terrorism now prevailing throughout the United Kingdom following attacks on Britain by Islamic fundamentalists left the IRA with nowhere to go. Instead of pointing out its defeat, we are supposed to be grateful to it for not waging a war for which it lacks the resources, weaponry and support even to contemplate. Being closer to this than most of us on the mainland, Dr Paisley knows how the republicans have colluded with a cynical government to construct this pretence of a new dawn for Ulster. He knows how earlier concessions, such as Lord Patten’s idiotic destruction of the RUC, have boosted the gangsters and reinforced an already vibrant culture of criminality. He is right to do all he can to confront the cynicism with which the government now treats not just Unionists, but the rule of law itself.
Mr Blair seems to imagine that a lasting settlement in Ulster requires simply the approval of the republicans. The Unionists, preferably with the support of the Conservative party, need to remind him that this is far from the case. Because the mainland has for some years now been untouched by IRA terror, many in Britain — including the Prime Minister — think the peace process has ‘worked’. The unending series of so-called punishment attacks, the lawlessness in republican areas of Ulster and the gangsterism of the paramilitaries tell anyone who bothers to lift up the stone that it has not. And unless those residual evils are ruthlessly tackled instead of appeased, and unless the wishes of the law-abiding majority in Ulster are properly respected, this brave new dawn for Ulster, like several others in the last decade or so, will quickly be replaced by darkness. A cancer of violence and extremism every bit as malign as that of the Islamic fundamentalists remains at the heart of the republican movement. So long as we have a government that seeks, absurdly and amorally, to distinguish between these two profoundly indistinguishable forms of terrorism, that cancer will continue to flourish, and to kill.