This is a good time for Ireland

Wed, Jan 31, 2007, 00:00

Policing was always the issue in Northern Ireland, says Vincent Browne.

It was because a sizeable proportion of the nationalist population refused to accept the authority of the RUC from the outset that there was conflict in the North - or at least the refusal of a sizeable proportion of the nationalist population to accept the authority of the RUC was indicative of a general refusal to recognise the state, which was at the core of the conflict.

It was always the case that if the authority of the police force could be accepted across the communities there, the conflict would be resolved, or would be resolvable. Without acceptance, the conflict could not be resolved, would not be resolved.

Now there appears to be an acceptance of the authority of the state, represented by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). If this transpires to be so, the Northern Ireland conflict is resolved. The end of violence or of the "armed struggle" did not signal the end of the conflict, it might have been only a deferral.

The acceptance of the PSNI as a legitimate police force, as signalled most vividly by the remarks of Gerry Adams on Monday, represents the acceptance of the Northern Ireland state by the vast majority of nationalists.

It is of enormous significance in the history of Ireland. In the space of a mere 13 years the political contours of the island have been transformed, transformed in a way that will change the future fundamentally.

This development was telegraphed in 1993 in a statement issued hurriedly one Saturday night (April 24th, 1993) by Gerry Adams and John Hume. Ironically, it was Eamon McCann who was responsible, indirectly, for that statement.

Someone had told Eamon they had seen Gerry Adams going into John Hume's home in the Bogside, Eamon rang a Dublin newspaper, who contacted Hume and Adams and that caused the statement to be issued.

Ironic, because Eamon McCann is opposed to the outcome of the peace process, which flowed from the statement issued that night, believing that it consolidates sectarianism.

They said in that statement: "We accept that the Irish people as a whole have a right to national self-determination. This is a view shared by a majority of the people of this island, though not by all its people." But it was the next sentence that was significant: "The exercise of self-determination is a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland."

And later in the statement they said: "We both recognise that such a new agreement is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation."

It was the first time a leader of the republican movement had acknowledged the political imperative: that any constitutional change would have to "earn and enjoy" the allegiance of the different traditions on the island.

Previously, the position had been that the British would have to be coerced into ceding Irish unity, irrespective of the wishes of the majority in the North. From that evening onwards, for anybody with a wit to see and not blinded by prejudice, it was obvious that the Provos were headed in the direction at which they have now arrived: acceptance of the state of Northern Ireland underlined by acceptance of its police force. That Gerry Adams has been able to bring a largely united republican movement to this point is an achievement of extraordinary political skill, aided and abetted by the internal military disciplines of the IRA.

It hardly matters now whether there will be powersharing next March. The key issue was acceptance of the police.

Powersharing will follow some time - maybe it will take a few years and if that prediction is correct, it will defy many previous predictions (including some of my own), who thought it might not happen for a generation.

Sectarian tensions and animosities are still very raw, and how could it be otherwise given the scale of the slaughter that was perpetrated for a quarter of a century up to 13 years ago? But the chemistry already has changed.

On Seán O'Rourke's The Week in Politics programme on Sunday night, Ian Paisley jnr invoked in support of a point he was making remarks by Bertie Ahern. The point he was making was not of special significance, but for Ian Paisley's son so unselfconsciously to quote with approval remarks of a southern Taoiseach is symptomatic of a changed relationship on the island. That DUP members can appear on Questions and Answers as a matter of routine now and engage in banter about southern Irish politics, is also significant.

The demeanour of that same Ian Paisley jnr is also interesting. There remain a few rough edges - the instinct to sneer at and belittle women and gays for example - but there is a maturity there and now an acknowledgment of the advances made by the other side.

In fairness to Sinn Féin, the likes of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others have displayed that generosity for quite some time too. Yes, yes they have, or should have, a lot on their consciences, (if that phrase means anything now), but it is fair now to acknowledge the extraordinary transformation they, primarily, have brought about.

This is a good time for Ireland.