FEBRUARY 12, 1996
Can the Northern Ireland Peace process survive Friday's bomb attack in London? Following a background report and excerpt from Prime Minister John Major's speech on the peace process, Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the future of Irish peace.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Washington today, President Clinton said he would do everything he could to get the peace process back on track. But in a meeting with the leader of Northern Ireland's Unionist Party, the President refused his request that the US no longer allow Gerry Adams or other Sinn Fein members into the country. Now we get two perspectives on Northern Ireland. Ray O'Hanlon is senior editor of the "Irish Echo," a New York-based Irish-American newspaper. And Michael Elliott is editor of "Newsweek International" and former Washington bureau chief for the British magazine "The Economist." Thank you both for being with us. Michael Elliott, is the peace process dead?
MICHAEL ELLIOTT, Newsweek Magazine: Elizabeth, I think a peace process is just about dead. That is to say the peace process we have had for the last 18 months, so I don't think "the" peace process is dead, no. I think one of the things that's happened today is a determination in three capitals, Dublin, Washington, and London, to try and put together a peace process, but we all lost our virginity on Friday, and it's going to be extremely difficult, extremely difficult to get back to a status quo ante. That's why I say the peace process that existed up to Friday is gone. The search now is to see whether we can, whether we can build a peace process that lasts a bit longer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ray O'Hanlon, do you agree with that?
RAY O'HANLON, Irish Echo: (New York) Well, I do agree that there is a fundamental change in the peace process. The peace process, itself, itself continues to exist, but it remains a rather unusual peace process. When we look at Bosnia, the Middle East, and South Africa, in every case, at one point or another you had talks between the warring parties, and that's how Northern Ireland stands out as being very different. The lack of political talks between the warring parties, and given what John Major has said today, there seems very little early prospect of such talks taking place.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's go back a little and try to figure out why all this is happening. Why do you think the IRA did this at this time, the bombing?
MR. O'HANLON: Well, it's been coming for some time. I mean, the signs have been there really since late last summer. There have been some suggestions that it was almost going to happen just before the Downing Street communique at the end of November between the Irish--from the Irish and British governments and the visit of President Clinton. And really President Clinton's visit to Ireland put off the evil day. There has been obvious impatience among Irish Republicans and Nationalists over the reluctance of the British and the Unionists to engage in talks so really there was a feeling in some quarters of inevitability of this bombing, and actually wonder as to why it didn't happen earlier, so the warning signs have been there. Government officials in both sides of the Irish Sea have been suspecting that something like this was going to happen for some time. In fact, one Irish government official earlier last week wondered when the political graft and the--what he called the killing graft would intersect. That question was answered two days later.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And why? Why did the, the British government not want to talk with the IRA? What happened in that period that made this sort of inevitable?
MR. ELLIOTT: Well, I think talks will happen actually and I think, I thought last week we were getting quite close to a fudge with which everyone could just about agree, and I think--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what was that fudge that you thought would happen?
MR. ELLIOTT: Well, everyone gets something. The Irish government gets proximity talks, so-called proximity talks, talks rather like those that took place in Dayton, Ohio.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where the parties are all in the same place but they don't necessarily talk to each other.
MR. ELLIOTT: Right. The British government and the Unionists get at the same time as the proximity talks are going on elections to a body that would have formal all-party talks. The Unionists say that they will accept all-party talks at such an elected body, and everyone gets a bit of something. And I thought we were actually heading in that direction last week, and it would have been messy, and it would have been a fudge, and there would have been all sorts of compromises. And actually I think we might get back there. I mean, the, the language used by Major in the House of Commons today was extremely clever and extremely careful. I mean, he has gone out of his way, I think, not to ask Gerry Adams to disassociate himself from the bombing on Friday which, in my view, is an impossible demand, which would arguably make the situation worse, not better. Instead, what Major has said is that Sinn Fein must see if they can get another cease-fire. Now, that won't be easy either, but I think if they can deliver another cease-fire with which everyone has a degree of confidence, one might be able to move forward on a number of different tracks to talks within a few weeks, a few months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. O'Hanlon, the role of Gerry Adams is important here, as the public spokesman for Sinn Fein, which is the political arm of the IRA. How do you--and he has been received by the President and the President has now been asked not to let him come back in the country. How do you understand his role, what he knew, what he didn't know, who he informed?
MR. O'HANLON: Well, in one sense, that's the $64,000 question. And it is a problem for Gerry Adams. The more he says he didn't know, the more he looks isolated from the controlling center of the IRA. Then, of course, if he admits that he did know, that would be a serious breach of the protocol that have been developed between him and his party and the White House. Adams did contact the White House shortly before the bombing, more or less saying that there were rumors that something was about to happen. In all likelihood, Adams did have an inkling but he has been seen to be somewhat removed from the IRA Army council for several months now, both he and Vice President Martin McGinnis, so it would appear that he perhaps did not know any of the details of what was to transpire, and is saying the truth. Then, again, of course, he does to a certain degree lose credibility because some will point to him and say, well, really, what influence does he have with the IRA, and what's the point of President Clinton entertaining him at the White House, indeed, giving him the red carpet treatment at the White House?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael.
MR. ELLIOTT: I agree entirely with that, and I'd go one stage further. I mean, precisely because Gerry Adams is so important to this process, I don't think it wise to press him either on what he knew or didn't know on Friday, or to press him to disassociate himself from it. Frankly, he can't. I mean, if there is one thing worse than the present situation, it would be a split in the Republican ranks in which, in which men with a good deal less commitment to the peace process, then Gerry Adams might grab real power. So I don't think we should put Adams on the spot of forcing him to disassociate himself from, from what happened on Friday, odd though that sounds, because I think to do so really would marginalize him at a time when frankly he's needed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to talk about Former Sen. Mitchell's commission, the International Commission that looked at this matter and especially at the matter of disarming the IRA. Some reports lay the bombing at this point, at the point at which the commission came up with an idea--
MR. ELLIOTT: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --which the British basically rejected. Am I right about that? Could you give us some background on that?
MR. ELLIOTT: Well, it was an extremely complicated and in my view rather maladroit piece of work by the British government. I mean, essentially in their lives, they accepted the Mitchell Commission's report but then said--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Mitchell Commission said--
MR. ELLIOTT: --let's go on and have elections. Now, elections are a code word in Northern Ireland to a place where all party talks will take place. Now, from the--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, let's just start--the Mitchell report said, am I right about this--
MR. ELLIOTT: --commission at the same time as all party talks--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --have all party talks and at the same time have disarmament, whereas, the British had been saying first--
MR. ELLIOTT: That's the central recommendation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --disarmament, then talks.
MR. ELLIOTT: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then the British said, no, we still want elections for the group that's negotiating at all.
MR. ELLIOTT: The British government's view, I mean, the way the British government would answer your question is to say we'll have commissioning at the same time as all party talks, as Mitchell says, but we will have elections to determine who will take part.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who will take part, right. Let's talk about the British government's demand--
MR. ELLIOTT: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --that there be elections for this negotiating group. Why do they want that? Why don't--
MR. ELLIOTT: The British government--the British government case would be that elections are a way of getting all parties to all party talks. In other words, that if you don't have elections, which is what the Unionists have asked for, the Unionists won't come. The counter-argument which has equal pause is that in Northern Ireland elections merely polarize the community, have often given new strength to Unionists die-hards, rather than to Unionist moderates, or moreover, rather sneakily show that Sinn Fein doesn't have huge electoral support, perhaps 12 percent, so--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is--
MR. ELLIOTT: So--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is where everybody was blocked when the bomb went off, right?
MR. ELLIOTT: Right. I, I personally thought it was a slightly maladroit move by the British government--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Not to accept--
MR. ELLIOTT: But they have--they have, as they say in Britain, half a point, you know, that you have to get Unionists to all party talks, otherwise, you won't have all party talks.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. O'Hanlon, do you have anything to add to that?
MR. O'HANLON: Well, I think the feeling among Nationalists in Northern Ireland, indeed, I think it's shared by the Irish government, that elections in Northern Ireland are, indeed, quite predictable. What they want to see is that understandings are set up in advance of any elections for any assembly. That would take into account the minority position. What essentially is to be discussed is a form of power sharing, which has not been evident in Northern Ireland really ever, and also talk of a bill of rights, and a whole series of new formulae upon which an election could take place. In other words, the parties would go into an elected process feeling that they're all going to get something out of it, because the problem, as mentioned, is that each and every party fears the potential outcome, so much so that they will not enter into talks, or, indeed, elections, one or the other, so why the--why the talks first--is to hammer out a series of understandings that alleviate these fears and allow the various parties to take part in an election process that they all feel that they have a stake in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. O'Hanlon, how important is the US role in all this now? The US government's been very involved in this up to now. Must it still be involved to move this forward?
MR. O'HANLON: I think absolutely. I think that the US role, I think more than ever, as a broker in this, is needed. It's a difficult one for President Clinton. In one sense, he was basking in reflected glory because he was handed a cease-fire on a plate. Now, he's dealing with a very difficult situation, and he's also dealing between friends who are at odds, the Irish and British governments. It's much easier to deal with enemies and impose blockades or bomb them, but this is a very, very difficult diplomatic situation for President Clinton, also going into an election campaign with many Irish-Americans looking at his performance very closely, but I think more than ever now, there is a need for a US role. The US has its foot in the door, and I think would be very reluctant to actually take that foot out.
MR. ELLIOTT: I agree that the American government has been useful, more than useful, increasingly come to be essential to the whole process, and that they have a role in bringing the British and Irish governments to, to some diplomatic demarche, where they can move forward on a whole number of fronts. What the American government cannot do, I think, genuinely cannot do, is force Gerry Adams and the IRA to announce that there is a new cease-fire. I mean, it does not seem to me that it is--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean, the US can't do it because--
MR. ELLIOTT: Absolutely.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --it doesn't have the power.
MR. ELLIOTT: It is not in the gift of the American government to force Adams to do that, and what we don't know is whether it's in the gift of Adams, himself, to persuade the IRA that a new cease-fire is necessary.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Michael Elliott, Ray O'Hanlon, thanks for being with us.