Posted By: May 02, 2014


Denis Bradley. Irish News ( Belfast). Friday, May 2, 2014.

AFTER 20 years, the core questions that informed the Good Friday Agreement are
beginning to grow legs. Twenty years back places the genesis of those legs not so
much in the agreement itself but in the beginning discussions between the two main
killing machines, the IRA and the British government, active on these islands at
that time.

At the first of those encounters the British were asked to outline the policy that
they would adhere to in the future years if the Republican movement were to bring
their role in the killing to an end. Their response could be summarised as follows:
the government didn't have the moral right to abandon Unionism and wouldn't be
driven to such a position by violence; the government would never again lift a
finger to enhance or strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the United
Kingdom; the government would be more than content if negotiations lead to a united
Ireland but they would not act as a persuader for Irish unity as they considered
that to be the responsibility of people on the island of Ireland. Those were the
themes that underpinned the negotiations that led to the ceasefire, the Good Friday
Agreement, the demise of the Provisional IRA, the inept but transformative assembly
and executive, the hokey-cokey policy speeches of Peter Robinson and the visit of
Martin McGuinness to Windsor Castle. The policies were put forward under John
Major's government which had a slim majority and a rump of backbenchers who were
positively hostile to any negotiations with the IRA. The slim majority and the
backbench antagonism was one of the reasons for a temporary breakdown of the truce
and the snail-paced journey to all-party talks. Despite plenty of shaky moments the
broad policies are extant and will remain the issues that will dominate future
political developments.

As the original excitement and relief has faded it has become clear that those who
want to persuade Unionism and the British that Irish unity is desirable and/or
inevitable need to up their game. There is little clarity, debate or passion about
the tone and the substance of persuasion. All the southern parties and the SDLP
enter this ring with one arm tied behind their back. None of them are all-Ireland
parties and therefore their input to major debates are limited by geography and
presence. Sinn Fein are displaying the strength and the attractiveness of
all-Ireland status but their ability to persuade unionism is mostly neutered by
their violent past. The issue of persuasion is thrown into further relief by the
Scottish referendum in September. The SNP have moved their bid for independence from
pie in the sky dreams to possible realisation.

A combination of good governance and pragmatic compromises that portrays nationalism
as more than a sentimental, immature ideology has persuaded a lot more voters than
the naysayers originally predicted. Whatever the outcome of that referendum, it has
moved constitutional politics from the dreamy, sentimental periphery to the
hard-edged, mainstream dynamics of government and power. The SNP sometimes responded
to the demands for compromise and inclusion but more often than not they predicted
and defined the necessary compromises.

In the Irish debate a small but vital example of such a compromise is the
inevitability of re-joining the Commonwealth. That is one of the issues that will
have to be removed from the 'hurt cupboard' of Irish history and republican distaste
of royalty and placed on the table of persuasive subjects that are honourable and
important to more than a million people who are part of the tapestry.

At that beginning meeting some 20 years ago, the British proclaimed their neutrality
and on the whole have kept to that policy with the odd deviance of courting Unionist
votes at Westminster when one or other party was short of votes. There are signs of
such a deviancy occurring again. The Conservative Party have no chance of remaining
in power after the next election without the support of other parties. The 10 or so
votes that the unionists will be able to deliver could come into the power play.
There are signs that the courtship has already begun and the temptation will
increase. While such deals are part of normal politics, this is not the time to be
hindering a maturing debate in Anglo/Irish affairs. The Conservatives should re-read
their notes on what they outlined and committed themselves to on the night they
persuaded the IRA to go away.