Sinn Fein returns to simplistic certainties of ghetto

 

SINN FEIN is slipping back to the isolation and self deceiving introspection of the ghetto. That, even more than the rising tension on the streets of Derry and Belfast, is the most fearful aspect of the situation facing Ireland less than two weeks into the new year.

The sense of a retreat to the simple certainties of Ourselves Alone is heard in the stonewalling responses of Martin McGuinness on television, the lecturing condescension of Mitchel McLaughlin as he urges the Taoiseach to "please, please, please" admit his mistakes. Most depressing of all has been Gerry Adams's curt dismissal of John Hume's article in last weekend's Sunday Independent.

It is difficult to believe that Mr Adams actually read the article or, if he did, that he understood the urgency of its plea for a strategy that might halt the slide to despair, particularly of the nationalist minority, in the North. Instead, he reverted to a factional response, reminiscent of the bad old days before the ceasefire, choosing to read the SDLP leader's careful argument as a "preposterous" attempt to undermine the electoral rights of Sinn Fein.

The timing of the article, its appearance in the Sunday Independent rather than, say, the Irish News, signalled Mr Hume's desire to start a debate across a broad spectrum of nationalist opinion, in this State as well as in the North.

The opening sentence: "Violence does not constitute the basis for a viable political strategy" set the tone. The SDLP leader challenged the leaders of nationalist Ireland to take a long, hard look at the realities facing this island, the imminent danger of a slide back to sectarian violence and to come up with a strategy to fill the political vacuum, at least in the short term.

Mr Hume has earned the right to be taken seriously when he puts forward a radical proposal to advance the cause of peace on this island. Those of us who have reported on Northern Ireland since the start of the present Troubles know that, over and over again, when it seemed that the political well had finally been drained of all hope and that civil war was inevitable, the SDLP leader has come up with some initiative to restore hope in the nationalist community that progress was possible by democratic means.

He has never been afraid to look despair in the face and take the risks necessary to bring both communities back from the brink. The Hume Adams initiative earned him the greatest opprobrium of all - and yielded the prize of peace.

IN Sunday's article, Mr Hume appealed to the leadership of Sinn Fein to take an unflinching look at the present situation - the intransience of the unionists, their continuing clout at Westminster, how this has paralysed the present government and might affect the next one - to discuss realistic tactics for shifting the balance more equitably towards the nationalist minority.

The basis for any discussion of an electoral pact would have to be a new ceasefire but, as well as this, Mr Hume asked Sinn Fein to consider seriously what it would mean if there were to be seven articulate MPs, willing to take their seats and to make the nationalist case in the House of Commons.

We all know how crucial abstentionism has been in republican ideology, how extremely problematic it would be for Sinn Fein to abandon it in relation to the British parliament. Still, it has already been jettisoned in the case of Dail seats and achieving that historic change was a source of satisfaction to Mr Adams and those close to him.

Even if we accept that it would be, in Mr Adams's words, "preposterous" to expect Sinn Fein to put up candidates on the basis of taking seats at Westminster, there are alternatives. If this is a step too far, the Sinn Fein leadership should at least be willing to discuss other possibilities that would allow nationalist interests to be more fairly represented at Westminster, for example by agreeing candidates to stand on a one off basis in this election.

In essence, Mr Hume is arguing for an initiative to restore political momentum and thus "preserve the possibility of progress in the future", rather than an inevitable regression to the violence of the past. For that is the choice facing Northern Ireland and the responsibility for steering it away from disaster rests as much with Mr Adams as with any other politician.

Republican sources claim the present state of uncertainty in the North - botched terrorist attacks by the IRA interspersed with others that are apparently allowed to succeed - is deliberately designed to demonstrate, as graphically as possible, that the Provos are capable of inflicting terrible damage but have not yet decided to unleash the dogs of war.

The sickening dangers of such a course are all too obvious. The ratchet of fear and possible retaliation is wound tighter each day. The effect on the unionist community of an attack such as that on the intensive care unit of a children's hospital can only be imagined. What realistic hope is there of holding the line in such a situation?

After the rocket attack on the High Court, Gerry Adams said that "the genie is out of the bottle" and we face into very dangerous times. In such times we have to be grateful for the admirable restraint of the loyalist groups and for the skill they have shown in steadying the situation. We must also hope that Sinn Fein will learn from their political sophistication.

THE past year and the 18 months before that have not been easy. In an ideal world the British government would have demonstrated more flexibility and imagination in dealing with the peace process. But leadership consists in accepting such setbacks and finding a way around them. It may be that a British general election will improve the prospects for peace dramatically, but it is equally possible that a close result will see a Labour government looking with equal apprehension towards the unionists.

That is the situation which John Hume has already foreseen and which he is trying to circumvent. But the arguments he has outlined have more profound implications and present a real challenge to Sinn Fein.

The priority just now must be to create a dynamic which revives hope for progress in Northern Ireland. The original basis for the peace process lay in the decision by Gerry Adams and John Hume to work together and to mobilise the enormous goodwill of Irish nationalism at home and abroad.

By delivering peace on the streets they also brought hope for a better future for the whole island. Now it seems the problems facing the republican movement are so grave that the Sinn Fein leadership can no longer devote time and energy to this broader aspiration.

Life in the ghetto is simpler and thus oddly reassuring. But the people whom Sinn Fein represents deserve better than the prospect of continuing to live on the edge of real politics. Mr Adams knows this very well. It is why he got involved in the peace process in the first place and why he should talk to Mr Hume about how he can best advance the interests of those people now.