Friday 30 September 2016

Who got most from Hume's talks with Adams?

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Seamus Mallon, speaking on BBC Talkback last Monday, graphically summed up the Provisional IRA's abuse of its secret talks with John Hume, which became public in April 1993.

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"They used John - John Hume - like you'd play a 3lb trout. And he gave them the thing they were looking for. And that was a respectable image in the United States. They used him - oh, yeah, I think so, there's nothing new, I've said this. I said it to John. I've said it within the party."

In 1993, the Provo IRA, riddled with informers, was on the ropes in the North. In the Republic, Sinn Fein was a political pariah.

But from 1993, the relationship with John Hume gave Sinn Fein a rock of respectability from which it rose like a rocket to its present powerful place, north and south.

Mallon loyally did his best to explain to presenter William Crawley why Hume seemed blind to the possibility he was being played by the Provos.

Mallon: I think he was so immersed in the whole business of getting peace that he didn't - or couldn't - come to grips with the fact that his presence with them (the IRA) gave them, especially in the United States and in Ireland, status that almost bordered on validating their actions over the past 30 years.

Crawley: That's a serious statement.

Mallon: That's a very serious statement. And it's one I think of very often. Especially when I can't sleep at night and you ask yourself what could we have done then to prevent that?

Seamus Mallon's wise and wide-ranging retrospection got scant mention in the Republic's media for three reasons.

First, from 1993 on, most journalists failed to subject the Hume-Adams talks to severe scrutiny. Naturally they don't want to draw attention to this dereliction of duty.

Second, publicising Mallon's scepticism might justify the strongly critical stance taken by the two media outlets who did do their duty - the Sunday Independent under Aengus Fanning, and the Sunday Times under its Northern editor, Liam Clarke, who sadly died last Sunday.

Finally, publicising Mallon's remarks might challenge the myth that there was no alternative to the Hume-Adams peace process. Let me take these three points in turn.

Now I don't blame the southern media for being starry eyed at the start. In a September 1993 column for the Sunday Times I had welcomed the talks and urged Northern Protestants to take risks.

"I believe the Northern Protestants have won the war by fortitude and faith... They must help the Provisionals to win the peace."

Never doubting Hume's passion for peace, at the start I failed to ask myself a fundamental question: would Hume hypnotise Adams or would it be the other way around?

The scales soon fell from my eyes. But most of the media had bought into the peace process too deeply to draw back and ask who was getting most from the Hume-Adams talks.

The two exceptions were the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Times which had the temerity to tease out who was doing what to whom in the Hume-Adams process.

For this the Sunday Independent has never been forgiven by a consensus to protect Hume that stretches from the Department of Foreign Affairs, through RTE to Sinn Fein - which party, significantly, attacked Mallon for his remarks last week.

Last October, Sean Donlon, former secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Councillor Alex Attwood, of the SDLP, denounced the Sunday Independent for what Donlon described as "persistent and vicious" attacks on John Hume.

True, Eamon Dunphy's polemics were sometimes too personalised, and for that he has apologised. But what about the substance?

Donlon gives no hint that he accepts the Sunday Independent had both a right and a duty to challenge John Hume acting as a referee for Sinn Fein - and in the most robust terms.

Cheerleaders for Hume-Adams are also careless of facts. Niall O'Dowd, criticising Tony O'Reilly for allowing attacks on Hume, wrote "his chief instrument was columnist Eoghan Harris who laid out the newspaper's priority".

This is both false and cowardly. False because in that period I was working for the Sunday Times under Liam Clarke. Cowardly because he dodges taking on Eamon Dunphy, the chief columnist for the Sunday Independent.

Finally, what was the alternative to Hume-Adams, given the Provos were gagging for respectability in the Republic?

Mallon provided the answer, pointing out that decommissioning should have been a precondition not a bargaining point.

Mallon: How can you come to terms with the fact holding illegal arms, and getting rid of those illegal arms is a voluntary act?

Crawley: You'd have just taken them? Gone after them?

Mallon: The result of not doing that almost destroyed the Ulster Unionist Party who had worked hard for God knows how many years, to keep politics alive. It had severely damaged our party, the SDLP... and almost gave a green light to people 'these boys aren't too bad at all. It'll be alright to vote for them'.

Here Mallon is speaking for a democratic tradition stretching from WT Cosgrave to Eamon de Valera, rejecting the IRA's right to bear arms and refusing to treat with terrorists no matter what the cost.

***

Liam Clarke, who died last Sunday, was the greatest journalist writing in Northern Ireland, both during the decade leading up to the Good Friday Agreement for the Sunday Times and more recently for the Belfast Telegraph.

Like me, Liam respected John Hume's personal sincerity. But he never took his beady eye from the Provos' murky manipulation of the peace process.

Liam lived long enough to see the conviction of Slab Murphy, whom he had fearlessly tackled in a forensic report for the Sunday Times, which was a milestone in modern journalism.

But while it was the biggest, the Slab Murphy story was only one of his many scoops. Another major one was his interview with Bertie Ahern in the Sunday Times in 1999.

Liam got Ahern to admit that decommissioning was a moral imperative and not merely a political bargaining point.

From then on Irish Government took a tougher line on decommissioning than the British government. This was also a victory for Seamus Mallon's hardline stance.

Liam was probably the only Irish journalist with the gravitas and guts to press Ahern on that point and get that admission.

He was my mentor, one of my few heroes in Irish journalism, and a patriot who wanted a principled peace.

My heartfelt condolences to Cathy, his beloved partner and close comrade in their lifelong work to tell the truths that set us free.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.

Sunday Independent

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