News Eoghan Harris

Thursday 18 September 2014

Reynolds's risks for peace pose their own problems

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Jim Cogan

The peace process has been good for Northern Ireland. Here is a heretical question. Has it been good for the Irish Republic ?

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The honest answer is no. Sinn Fein is the only political beneficiary. Adams is still rising like a political rocket, propelled by the peace process, leaving Irish and British prime ministers floating in his wake. How soon we forget.

Only seven years ago, in October 2007, a 10-man IRA gang from South Armagh unit murdered Paul Quinn in a barn in Co Monaghan by beating him with iron and nail-studded bars for almost an hour, methodically breaking every bone in his body,

Today Sinn Fein, led by prominent former Provo IRA chiefs, is poised to take power in the Irish Republic. Gerry Adams could well become Taoiseach as part of a rotating Coalition deal. If so, will Sinn Fein behave like democrats?

We don't know. But judging by our sales the public strongly supports the Sunday Independent when it raises hard questions about the Provos' past. Sinn Fein calls this process of checking and challenging its record "vilification."

For almost 30 years Provo propagandists used the word "demonisation" to describe any criticism of delinquent behaviour by northern nationalists - such as the failure to show proper respect for the funeral of Jean McConville. Likewise it denounced scrutiny of its abuse of the peace process 1993-1998 as vilification. But it is a bit much, in a modern democracy, with a free press, for RTE presenters to pretend that trenchant analysis of a Taoiseach's actions in talking to a terrorist murder gang amounts to "vilification."

Vilification was also the vogue word at Albert Reynolds funeral. Some RTE presenters repeated the word with relish. Regrettably, some in Reynolds's family embraced for him, the victim role he himself refused.

Adams was all over our screens at the funeral. RTE asked him no awkward questions. It was too busy beating up on reviled revisionists who had dared to scrutinise Reynolds's role in the peace process.

Contributors repeatedly praised him as a "gambler" for peace. Clearly RTE felt that risking the Republic's integrity to talk to the IRA was beyond debate. Justine McCarthy, who works for our competitor, the Sunday Times, repeated the old green refrain that the Sunday Independent criticised Albert Reynolds.

She forgets two things. Firstly, back in 1993, the Sunday Times, under the late Alan Ruddock, shared the scepticism of the Sunday Independent about the danger of gambling on the future of the Irish Republic by dealing with the Provos rather than by defeating them.

Even so, writing in the Sunday Times in 1993, I was one of the first commentators to give the Hume-Adams talks a cautious welcome. I said that if Adams and McGuinness were sincere they might find some kind of redemption. But as the Provos procrastinated and prevaricated, I became more sceptical of their motives.

Secondly, when McCarthy says Reynolds was "vilified" she is speaking more like a polemicist than a journalist. Reynolds was not vilified in any normal meaning of the word.

This is a democracy and he was Taoiseach. So his proposal to talk to representatives of a terrorist gang - which would go on to murder gardai - was rightly subjected to searching criticism in the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Times.

RTE peace processors gloss the realities of 1993. The Provos were under big pressure on two fronts. In the Irish Republic the Warrington bomb had produced massive peace marches. In Northern Ireland their command structure was penetrated by informers at every level.

From this position of weakness they put out probes they hoped would lead to a pan-nationalist front against northern Unionists. These probes led to the Hume-Adams talks.

Albert Reynolds then risked the integrity of the Irish Republic by talking to the leadership of a terrorist gang whose aims included the subversion of the Irish state itself.

Dermot Ahern, a strong supporter of Albert Reynolds, recalled the real situation in his tribute. "At the time, Sinn Fein were anxious that the SDLP, Fianna Fail, and Sinn Fein should form a pan-nationalist front. We were reluctant to follow that. And Albert didn't fall for it."

Let me sum up the situation as many democrats saw it at the time. Albert Reynolds was gambling that the Provo IRA was acting in good faith. Reynolds had no special information that this was so. So the Sunday Independent rightly raised the wisdom of bringing the IRA into the Irish body politic.

This sceptical stance did not go down well with many in RTE who were agitating for Sinn Fein to be given access to the airwaves by abolishing Section 31. They carried on as if Sinn Fein's credentials should be exempt from examination and acted as cheerleaders.

In contrast, commentators in both the Sunday Independent and Sunday Times believed the Reynolds gamble demanded severe critical analysis. For the first time an Irish Government was proposing to do a deal with the IRA rather than defeat it - as Cosgrave and De Valera had done. They took a hard line because truckling to the IRA risked giving it political legitimacy.

Likewise, in 1993 there were good reasons for rejecting any dealings with the Provos. They were on the ropes, militarily and politically, north and south. In the North their command structure was riddled with informers. In the Republic they were held in hatred and contempt by most decent people.

At this point, Cosgrave and De Valera would have closed the IRA down on this side of the Border. They would have refused the IRA refuge and continued to keep them off the airwaves. Eventually the Provisonal IRA would have been eroded by arrests and convictions in Northern Ireland. They would have been worn down to where the Dissidents are now.

Albert Reynolds took another road. He risked the safety of the Irish Republic for the sake of peace in Northern Ireland. He did so for the best of motives. But there were at least three bad results not raised on RTE.

Firstly, the Provos were allowed to appear as victors in Northern Ireland. Any fool could foresee this would mean Sinn Fein replacing the SDLP. And that is how it has turned out.

Secondly, the peace process retrospectively legitimised the Provo IRA's sectarian campaign with a rising generation in the Irish Republic. It gave a naked tribal aggression the appearance of a civil rights struggle. It led to a huge historical lie.

This lie gives legitimacy to Sinn Fein. It may put them in power. Who really knows what that means for the Irish Republic? Who knows whether Albert Reynolds's gamble will pay off until all the results are in?

We can only answer with the words attributed the Chinese leader Chou En Lai. Asked about the impact of the French Revolution on western civilisation he allegedly replied "it's too early to tell."

Sunday Independent

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