Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Within

Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Within

Article excerpt

CENTRALISATION and authoritarianism can produce results. On all non-economic questions, only three members of the Blair administration really count, and since 11 September, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell have been absolutely focused on their response to bin Laden, which is why the PM has such a grip on events. But his government has the defects of its qualities. Grip has been purchased at the expense of peripheral vision. As a result of concentrating exclusively on terrorists in Afghanistan, Mr Blair may have thrown away a chance to defeat terrorism in Ulster.

Even before 11 September, the IRA was in trouble because three of its members had been arrested in Colombia. Its links with drug-running and left-wing terrorism aroused great anger in America, which was further inflamed by Gerry Adams's feeble prevarications. So there was already an opportunity to use the American response to press the Provos to decommission.

Then came the outrage. In the Irish Republic, almost everyone assumed that the Provos would now face relentless pressure. In Washington, they were waiting for the British government to tell them what to say and do about decommissioning. The Provo leadership itself, uncertain and dismayed, felt unsure whether it would be able to avoid making significant concessions. It need not have worried. Mr Blair was simply too busy to turn his attention to Ulster, and while the PM's mind was elsewhere, two of the Provos' most reliable allies came to their rescue: the Protestant paramilitaries and the Northern Ireland office. The Protestant paramilitaries can be relied on to turn any good cause into a public relations nightmare, while the NIO is today's equivalent of the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Recent events may have had a dramatic effect on world opinion; its defeatist mindset has remained unaltered.

When Reginald Maudling was briefly in charge of Ulster matters, he said that his aim was to work down towards `an acceptable level of violence'. His cynicism was condemned, and has endured. It could indeed be the motto for today's NIO, which not only acquiesces in the Provos' failure to decommission. It appears to have given up all hope of ever restoring the Province to normal policing and the rule of law.

Back in 1998, Tony Blair defined `ceasefire' in the same terms that John Major and Paddy Mayhew had used. It was not enough for the Provos, the UDA et al. to hand over their weapons. There had to be no more punishment beatings or intimidation, and the various organisational structures had to be dismantled.

None of this has happened. The Chief Constable of the RUC, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, has said that all the terrorist organisations were in breach of the ceasefire. The most recent abuses have come from the UDA, which led to threats from the Northern Ireland Secretary, John Reid. In response, the UDA seems to have agreed to tone down the mayhem for 48 hours or so, which saved Dr Reid from embarrassment. It would have been hard for him to single out the UDA for proscription when the IRA has murdered about 30 people since 1998 - and when John Reid and his officials have gradually redefined the word ceasefire, replacing the moral certainties of the Good Friday Agreement with a weasely, appeasing mishmash.

It would appear that any terrorist organisation could still claim to be observing the ceasefire as long as it abstained from murdering policeman or soldiers, or setting off bombs on the UK mainland. …

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