MORE STEPS TOWARD PEACE
JULY 21, 1997
U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair met with David Trimble, leader of N. Ireland's main Protestant party on Monday, to discuss the ceasefire announced by the IRA over the weekend. A background report analyzing the ceasefire is followed by a panel discussion on the prospects for a lasting peace.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more on this we turn to Michael Elliott, editor of Newsweek International and Newsweek's other foreign editions, and Ray O'Hanlon, senior editor of the Irish Echo, an Irish-American weekly newspaper. Thanks for being with us. Ray O'Hanlon, what's changed in the months since the cease-fire broke down? What made this possible?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
July 21, 1997:
A background report on an Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire announced on Saturday, July 19.
March 17, 1997:
The Greening of the White House: an Online NewsHour forum investigates U.S. - Northern Ireland relations.
July 15, 1996:
A tradition of trouble: riots continue in Northern Ireland.
July 12, 1996:
A tradition of trouble:The Orange Day Parade sparks violence.
June 14, 1996:
Is peace possible? Two Irish reporters participate in an Online forum.
The Irish Voice, an online paper for Irish Americans.
The Irish Times on the Web.
RAY O'HANLON, Irish Echo: Well, obviously, the change of government in London has gone a long way towards changing the situation. The Tony Blair government has made moves that certainly have encouraged Sinn Fein to renew its efforts to convince the IRA that a second cease-fire would be more fruitful than the first.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what else has changed, in your view? Is that the main thing?
RAY O'HANLON: Well, obviously, the new British government's views with regards to decommissioning or surrendering of IRA weapons being an issue that can be dealt with on the side, so to speak, is a major difference. And there have been signs among unionists, including Mr. Trimble, that they will not close the door permanently to actually dealing with Sinn Fein.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Elliott, explain what this means, dealing with the arms issue, decommissioning or disarming on the side. Explain that issue. That seems to have been central today.
MICHAEL ELLIOTT, Newsweek International: In the previous cease-fire that ran from--towards the end of 1994 and towards the beginning of 1996 a continual stumbling block was this word "decommissioning," which essentially means whether or not the IRA would surrender any or all of its weapons as a precondition of getting involved in substantive talks, as the unionist side requested.
What the Blair government has essentially done is to follow up, suggest, and effectively suggested by George Mitchell, the ex-Senator who's in charge of the talks, that the question of surrendering weapons should be put to one side, and that substantive negotiations should carry on. The unionists would like to believe, however, that while talks continue, the IRA do something to show their good faith in terms of giving up some weapons. There's been little indication in the IRA in the last few days that that's quite how they see the compromise that's been arrived at.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ray O'Hanlon, describe the significance of this cease-fire. What is most significant about it? Is it because it may lead to the Sinn Fein participation in talks and this would be a very big story, indeed, in September? Is that the main significance?
RAY O'HANLON: I think there was a feeling all along that if the IRA went back to a second cease-fire, it really would be something that could last; that Sinn Fein was not going to lead the IRA into a blind alley; that it would ensure that the second time around would be the more fruitful of the two.
And I think that Sinn Fein feels that the groundwork is there; the British government in office now is one that they can deal with; and that over the longer period of time it can gain enough concessions to satisfy the harder elements within the IRA, those individuals, for example, who might oppose a continued cease-fire. Certainly there are individuals like that who would have reservations about going back to a cessation of violence.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Elliott, remind us what the negotiations are about. What's the goal? Who's there? What will be discussed? Let's assume for a minute that the cease-fire lasts, and the British government has said they want to make sure the cease-fire lasts before Sinn Fein does sit at the table. The--remind us--let's assume that happens. Who's there? What are they discussing?
MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, that's a very good question, a very interesting one, and apparently a very simple one, but one that actually admits of no simple answer. If the IRA believes that they would over the weekend, the presence of their statement over the weekend suggested they do believe that the negotiations are about an end to British rule in Northern Ireland, and actually prophesy the creation of the United Ireland, then the negotiations are not going to get anywhere, and they'll break down again, and there will be a resumption of violence.
If, on the other hand, the negotiations are about a political settlement in Northern Ireland that solidifies the role of the nationalist community, solidifies the role of the Irish Republic in Northern Irish affairs, but which does not change the constitutional status--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain those two things, both of them.
MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Well, you have in Northern Ireland a divided community in which 45 percent Irish Nationalists, broadly speaking Catholic, 55 percent regard themselves as British. If the settlement that comes out of these talks gives a genuine role in the political life of Northern Ireland to the American community and recognizes the special role that the Irish Republic plays in Northern Ireland, then I think there's a settlement that everyone can sign up for.
If, on the other hand, the IRA say no, this is about unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, and that's the bottom line, if that's what the negotiations are about in the eyes of Sinn Fein and IRA, then there's not going to be an agreement, and sooner or later, we'll be back to a violent struggle. I have not had in all these debates a representative of Sinn Fein or the IRA say and say unequivocally these negotiations are not about a united Ireland; they're about a political settlement within Northern Ireland, within the constitutional structures that presently obtain.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ray O'Hanlon, what do you think about that? What do you see the talks dealing with, and what does Sinn Fein want those talks to deal with, as far as you've heard?
RAY O'HANLON: Well, Sinn Fein has a delicate task in hand. Gerry Adams has to bring all sides and the Republican sector with him into the talks. What is paramount to Republicans, the IRA and Sinn Fein, and has been over the years, is unity--unified goals, unified command, unified agreement on where to go from here. To do this, Adams has borrowed time, has borrowed agreement from certain elements in the IRA that he has to give them a chance to really fundamentally change Northern Ireland internally from a nationalist point of view.
I think the older generation of IRA members who've been involved in this since the 1970's and before realize now that they are not going to secure a united Ireland through violence; that the British are simply not going to go; that the unionists are simply not going to budget; and this could go on for another 25 years. I believe Gerry Adams realizes that and has convinced the IRA leadership that there's a new course now in which fundamental changes internally in Northern Ireland and in the relationship between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland can be brought about through political negotiation, not necessarily friendly political negotiation.
It could get very ugly; it could break down a number of times, but at the end of the day it is the political road that is the way. And I think the politicals in Sinn Fein at the moment have won the argument over the armed campaign element in the IRA.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Elliott, why is this so important to Tony Blair? He has really gone out on a limb and put a lot of energy into this in his first months in government. Why?
MICHAEL ELLIOTT: It's important because it has a habit of nipping behind every British prime minister and stabbing them in the back. I mean, no matter how promising a British government may start out, there is the awful chance that sooner or later you're going to have to deal with the intractable of Northern Ireland for which he will get no thanks and many bricks--and I think what Blair has done is extraordinarily gutsy.
He started out his--his leadership of Britain by saying, I'm going to try and solve this; I'm going to try and crack this nut. I'm really going to give it my best shot; I'm not going to let it come up in my struggle for prime minister, and deaths on the streets, and violence, and what the hell is Blair doing; I'm really going to tackle it; I'm really going to tackle it straight on. In Mo Mowlam, he has, I think, an extremely--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is the secretary--
MICHAEL ELLIOTT: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--imaginative, warmhearted, and generally decent person. So they've got a chance. But, look, this is intractable. This has been going on since 1921 on one interpretation of history, since 1972 on another, since 1690 or 1585 on another. And it will take more than Tony Blair's energy, the undoubted commitment of the Irish government, the undoubted support of the American government. George Mitchell I think has been quite super in the role that he's played to crack this nut. These are difficult, long, complicated, historically charged issues. They don't go away quickly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ray O'Hanlon, what do you think the main obstacle right now is?
RAY O'HANLON: Well, the obstacle is history. History comes back to haunt Ireland periodically and all too periodically. I mean, for David Trimble, for example, who you saw in your report, this is--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Unionist--
RAY O'HANLON: The Unionist--Ulster Unionist Party leader, who leads the largest Unionist Party--he walked into the meeting with Tony Blair today looking over his shoulder at other Unionist politicians, like the Rev. Ian Paisley, who will be quick to take advantage if he in any way shows weakness. Gerry Adams has to walk into the talks too looking strong, not giving anything away.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The head of Sinn Fein.
RAY O'HANLON: The head of Sinn Fein, sort of saying, you know, I'm here to get something, not necessarily to give. The obstacles are many. The mistrust between the communities in Northern Ireland is incredibly deep. It does go back centuries, and at times, you would think that you're listening to the rhetoric of the Salem witch trial and--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry. I have to interrupt you. Michael Elliott, both of you, thanks for being with us.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|