Major's decline offers a real chance for peace

 

BY THIS evening, barring an act of God, John Major will have lost his majority in the House of Commons. The voters of East Barnsley will see to that. According to the Labour candidate, Jeff Ennis, the constituency is "thirsting for revenge".

The area has suffered dread fully from the destruction of the coal industry under the Conservatives. In some pit villages 80 per cent of people are out of work, and once closely knit communities have become accustomed to all the problems associated with high unemployment.

The revenge of East Barnsley could be of great importance to all the people of this island, because it makes an early general election in the United Kingdom more likely. The sooner the better. Rarely in the troubled history of AngloIrish relations have the priorities of British domestic politics impinged so dramatically here. The possibility of an early change of government at Westminster is now, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

We are receiving conflicting signals about the intentions of the Provisional IRA in the wake of Monday's depressing meeting in London. It should not be necessary to repeat, once again, that the best option facing the republican movement is to call an immediate ceasefire. This is not only for reasons of morality and humanity. There are compelling political arguments.

If John Major is forced to call an early election, Sinn Fein's participation from a position of moral strength would transform the situation in the North, and make it very difficult indeed for any incoming government to ignore the party's case.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to be optimistic about a ceasefire. Knowingly or otherwise, John Major seems to be behaving in a way that ensures it will not happen. Most people are disposed to believe that the British Prime Minister is a decent man, who has invested considerable political effort in the search for peace.

But the suspicion is gaining ground that a new IRA ceasefire, taken in conjunction with Sinn Fein's political demands, would simply create more problems than Mr Major is willing to deal with, given his domestic political difficulties.

Apart from the failure to reach agreement on a time frame for Sinn Fein's entry into talks, the Prime Minister's comments to the media after last Monday's summit might have been destined to inflame feelings of anger and mistrust on the republican side.

By describing the last IRA ceasefire as "a fake", and stressing that he would judge the credibility of any new cessation by what he was told by security sources, Mr Major has strengthened the hand of those within the IRA who argue for a return to violence.

There is a theory that Mr Major's intelligence sources (who failed to predict both the 1994 ceasefire and its breakdown), have told him that the IRA can be defeated. It's been suggested that recent arrests and arms seizures in Britain and Ireland have crippled the IRA.

Why deal with Sinn Fein, and risk enormous difficulties with the unionists, when it should be possible to smash the terrorists once and for all?

It is the task of the Irish Government to point out, as forcefully as possible, that this is a disastrous miscalculation. Recent opinion polls show that 50 per cent of people in this State hold the British government responsible for the breakdown of the peace process, while only 11 per cent blame Sinn Fein.

This could change, of course, if the IRA were to make a serious return to violence but, for the moment at least, it shows that public opinion is strongly on the side of those who are seen as having taken risks for peace.

THERE is another, even more potent reason to reject the idea that a security solution is the answer to Northern Ireland's problems. There has been optimistic talk before this of the IRA being brought to its knees. But the republican movement has always retained the power to recruit young people of intelligence and commitment to its ranks.

We have had evidence in recent weeks and months of the involvement of men and women who were not even born when the present Troubles erupted on to the streets of Belfast and Derry.

Diarmuid O'Neill, born and educated in Britain and described by his headmaster at the London Oratory School as "a courteous and hardworking young man", was 27 when he was shot dead by police in a London street. Edward O'Brien, from Gorey, was even younger when the IRA bomb which he was carrying exploded on a London bus earlier this year.

Tomorrow morning, Roisin McAliskey, aged 25 and suffering from serious complications in her pregnancy, will seek bail in Bow Street Magistrates Court. Her solicitor, Gareth Peirce, was in Dublin last weekend. She described her client as "very frail and very brave".

Ms McAliskey denies the charges about which the German police wish to question her, but the extradition procedure between EU states (with the exception of Ireland and Britain), is virtually automatic. The police are opposing bail, although this is surely a family which has demonstrated that its members do not run away from difficulties.

It seems that Roisin, who has already been treated harshly by the British authorities, may become a symbol of oppression to a whole community, like her mother before her. At the time of her arrest in Northern Ireland she was working as a teacher with children who have learning difficulties. A large part of the substantial funds which have been raised for bail came from people calling at her mother's home to offer their savings to help her.

These are factors in our situation which the British either cannot or will not understand. It is easier for John Major to dismiss republicans as "pariahs". But our Government knows the answer does not lie in attempting to smash the IRA. Rather the challenge is to bring those who have worked for peace into the political process and thus ensure that we do not lose another generation of young Irish men and women to violence.

John Bruton has been criticised from time to time for his handling of the peace process, but last Monday he made it quite clear that he understood and accepted this fundamental principle.

The republican movement should consider carefully his appeal for a ceasefire, not because it represents a cave in by the IRA and a victory for John Major, but because it points the way to a better future for Irish people living now and for generations still unborn.

If the voters of East Barnsley do their stuff, this British government may soon be a thing of the past. But the decision by the republican movement to opt for peace or war will affect this island - and its children for years to come. This is a time for patience and the long, historic view.