Derek Coombs once arranged secret talks between the IRA and the British government. He now believes talks cannot work-but re-drawing the border mightby / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the early 1970s I was responsible for arranging an extraordinary meeting between the IRA and senior figures in the Conservative administration. The talks, alas, came to nothing; but a few months later, in December 1973, the Sunningdale agreement led to the power-sharing executive-the closest we have ever come to a Northern Ireland solution. In the end power sharing was sunk by the unionists. Today, they would be happy to accept such an arrangement, but nationalist demands have moved on since that time.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, with the resumption of IRA bombing fresh in our minds, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that solutions based on talks will never work. There may be future lulls, and more talks about talks; but these, too, will prove a mirage.
Why did the IRA seek talks in the first place? It may have been a ground-swell of protest from the Catholic community at the tit-for-tat sectarian killings by the UVF and other militant unionists; it may have been a shortage of funds; or the belief that the British government was so tired of the conflict that it would override the unionists and do a deal on acceptable terms. It was probably a combination of all three -only history will tell.
Where do we go from here? The majority of the Northern Ireland population (including many Catholics) wish to remain part of the UK and will not allow their choice to be overridden by the relatively small number actively seeking a united Ireland. Likewise, the militant republicans who believe themselves to live in Ireland, who speak Irish, live in streets with Irish names, want to claim their own identity. Britain is stuck in the middle, without any colonial interest, happy to work with Dublin where it makes sense, but with a commitment to respect the majority view in Northern Ireland.
Given this impasse, perhaps the time has come to reconsider the movement of peoples and borders. Other territorial conflicts, such as those in the middle east, have invariably involved such movements. How would it happen? It might start with a referendum in Northern Ireland posing the simple question: “Do you wish to remain as part of the UK, yes or no?” If the answer is “no,” there would be an additional question: “Do you wish to reside in Eire?”
Most democratic republicans in the north would choose to remain. But part of the militant minority might be ready to move if the financial package were attractive enough, and if they were moving either to the south or to a small new border territory within today’s north. This border territory would become part of the Irish nation-an area the militant republicans could claim to have “won” from the British.
Naturally, there are many drawbacks to this proposal. The militant republicans believe it is their country which has been occupied by others and thus may be the most reluctant to consider moving. Sinn Fein used to have a policy of offering financial inducements to unionists to return to England or Scotland. Is it realistic to imagine the militants of West Belfast pulling up their roots and marching south?
The take-up may be very low, but equally it may be surprisingly high; the point is that everything else has been tried, so there is very little to lose by giving this proposal a chance. People move for a variety of reasons, but economic considerations are a prime motivation. If the inducement, backed by EU money, included decent housing, schooling and the prospect of employment, many people might take it up.
The IRA would most likely reject this proposal, but it numbers fewer than 600 people-many of them foot soldiers and opportunists drawn to the excitement of an illegal organisation. There is a further ring of several thousand people who support the IRA’s aims and methods only passively, but who nevertheless provide its popular base. It is at this group, and the more active foot soldiers, that the proposal is aimed. Husbands might be reluctant to break with tribal loyalty, but wives may well be attracted by the idea of bringing up children without the constant threat of arrest or retaliation. These are powerful incentives; wedded to financial inducements and job opportunities, they might just work.
Obviously, there would have to be an undertaking from those who benefited from this scheme that they would cease to support any kind of IRA activity. This might also involve an amnesty for former IRA activists who are desperate for a fresh start. Republicans, north and south, would still be able to argue for a united Ireland, but only for one achieved through trust and persuasion rather than terror. Clearly the whole process would have to be underwritten, both before and after the border change, by both the London and Dublin governments.
Northern Ireland has for too long been an albatross around the British neck. Interim solutions based on good will and reconciliation will not suffice. A new practical approach is needed-one which allows militant republicans to escape their minority status in a country they resent. The vast majority of ordinary Catholics and Protestants can live together quite peacefully. But opposing armies, however small, cannot-as Bosnia is currently proving. The proposal to redraw the border is an extraordinary one, but we are in an extraordinary situation. The idea should not be dismissed out of hand. Conventional thinking about talks will lead nowhere, as I have discovered for myself. A modest separation may be the only solution.