Why the Ceasefire Ended

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Jim Dee

WEEKS PRIOR TO the massive IRA bomb which rocked London’s Canary Wharf, an IRA volunteer in Derry told me, “If this goes back, it’ll involve London.” He was not happy, and in no way elished a return to war, adding: “And there’ll be casualties. It’s not going to be just Irish lives anymore.”

The volunteer was stating the obvious. As a senior Sinn Fein member said after the bombing, “Even the birds in the trees knew that the peace was over. Everybody knew it. Gerry Adams has been trying to say it for six months.”

Adams’ repeated warnings were ignored. Clearly, throughout the IRA’s seventeen-month cease-fire, British Prime Minister John Major had other priorities in Ireland. With the slimmest of majorities in the House of Commons, Major has nearly tripped over himself in placating Northern Ireland Unionists (parties who insist on remaining part of Britain–ed.).

In mid-January, Major trashed the proposals of the broadly welcomed Mitchell Commission report. This was particularly amazing since Mitchell had agreed the IRA must disarm, only more slyly–let Sinn Fein into negotiations, Mitchell counseled, then force them to discuss decommissioning of weapons as the first item on the agenda.

Major instead introduced a brand-new precondition: Talks could only take place following elections to a Northern Ireland assembly. Unionists had in fact authored the assembly option, which would see a ninety-member “negotiating” body seated, with delegates proportional to votes polled. Translation: These elections will simply bolster the Unionists’ built-in majority in the North.

The final straw came two days before the cease-fire ended,when on February 7 the British government flippantly dismissed an eleventh-hour proposal to save the peace process by the Irish Republic’s Foreign Minister Dick Spring. Sensitive to Major’s position, Spring proposed convening two days of Dayton-style talks in Belfast, having delegations in different rooms communicating via go-betweens.

Within hours, the British government rejected Spring’s proposal as “premature at best”–this a full seventeen months into the cease-fire.

Major’s desperate political-survival machinations have thrilled unionists. He can now cloak himself in anti-terrorist “leadership” garb. Given widespread disillusionment in Britain with Tory rule, war in Ireland may be his only chance for re-election. Nonetheless Sinn Fein and the IRA remain committed to ending the conflict through negotiations.

John Major took an ill-advised risk in ignoring foreboding portends that the cease-fire was collapsing. The question now is: Can he end the spectacle of his servile political pandering to unionists, grasp the significance of what is possible, and risk personal unemployment in order to bring peace to the north of Ireland?

ATC 61, March-April 1996