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 Derek Coombs / 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…