4 NOVEMBER 1972, Page 9


Beginning 'the middle game'

Ronati—r arming

Mr Whitelaw's Green Paper on the future of Northern Ireland is the most shattering reverse suffered by Ulster Unionism since the imposition of direct rule some seven months ago. It not merely rejects out of hand the demands of the Unionist extremists, but it also undermines the Unionist Party. Despite frequent protestations that it is merely an exploratory and consultative document, despite its insistence that it does not set out any single scheme for the future, it has narrowed the debate in a way that the vast majority of Unionists will conceive of as being prejudicial to their traditional interests.

An analysis of the most important part of the document (the eight conditions Which Mr Whitelaw's advisers have laid down as the basic criteria against which any ultimate political settlement must be Judged) illustrates this point. With the exception of the first condition, which states that Northern Ireland must remain Part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of its population so desires, all of the other conditions may be interpreted as favouring the Catholic rather than the Protestant interest which, of course, is Ultimately the acid test of all proposals relating to Northern Ireland. The demand for effective British sovereignty for as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, coupled with the insistence that any division of powers between Westminster and a regional assembly and, equally, the call for absolute fairness and equality, can only be interpreted as a rejection of the Unionist demand that Stormont be restored with at least its old Powers. The message is spelt out with almost brutal simplicity in the Green Paper's fifth condition which states that ' any new institutions must be of a simple and business-like character, appropriate to the powers and functions of a regional assembly." Even the one significant concession to Unionist opinion (the declaration that Northern Ireland must remain within the United Kingdom for as long as the majority wishes) is not unqualified in that it is presented as being not necessarily incompatible with the document's understanding of the Irish dimension.

This phrase, the Irish dimension, may Well prove among the document's most enduring contributions to the present Anglo-Irish debate. Searching behind the document's cautious circumlocutions, Ulster Protestants might well conclude that the phrase was intended as a less emotive and, hopefully, less provocative Synonym for ehe demands made by Mr -Lynch and by the SDLP for a British declaration in favour of eventual Irish 4IntY. Certainly the immediate reaction of

the main political parties in Dublin to the Green Paper would suggest that Mr Whitelaw and his advisers had gone as far in this direction as might be reasonably expected. No doubt Mr Whitelaw now hopes that Irish moderates and, in particular, the SDLP, will be tempted to show the same kind of imaginative concern for the English dimension.

At the present time there is a constant temptation for Irishmen to confine their attention to those political developments, seemingly more urgent and nearly always more spectacular, which take place within their own island. The context of British domestic politics seems to them less important, if not indeed irrelevant. But it is in this context that some of the major shifts of attitude on Anglo-Irish relations have recently occurred, and it is only in this context that the significance of the Green Paper can properly be understood. These shifts of attitude are principally two: first, a growing willingness on the part of British politicians of both the government and opposition parties to think publicly about a British withdrawal; second willingness to consider the Northern Ireland, problem within perspectives other than that of the United Kingdom alone.

The most striking evidence for the first shift of attitude was published in the Panorama opinion poll at the end of September which revealed that 55 per cent of those polled thought that the Government should pull all British troops out of Northern Ireland and let the Irish settle it among themselves. Even more striking was the pessimism about the possibility of peace being restored in Northern Ireland within the next year or so — 29 per cent thinking it not very likely and 46 per cent thinking it very unlikely. Mr Wilson was not slow to take the point when, at the Labour Party conference at the beginning of October, he spoke of public concern at the continuing British presence in the North. Although he did not subscribe to the demand for the withdrawal of troops, the very fact of this talking about the subject suggested that this was the direction in which his mind was moving, however slowly. The week immediately preceding the publication of the Green Paper saw several more such straws being floated in the prevailing wind of which much the most important was in the nature of an official government leak to Time magazine suggesting that there would be no alternative to withdrawal if the Government's proposals for a political settlement, expected in the White Paper promised for the New Year, failed to win general acceptance.

The second shift of attitude, the willingness to consider and to discuss Northern Ireland in what has now been christened the Irish dimension, cannot easily be distinguished from the first; nor, indeed, is it desirable that any such distinction should be attempted. For what Irish advocates of the solution of a united Ireland seem to forget is that When Mr Wilson spoke at Blackpool on the need to consider the implications of moving towards such a solution within the next fifteen years, or when the Green Paper insists that "no U.K. Government for many years has had any wish to impede the realisation of Irish unity if it were to come about by genuine and freely given mutual agreement," no commitment to the visionary doctrines of Irish republicanism is implied. For British politicians and for British audiences, the semantics of Irish unity are much more simple: it means a final end to British involvement in Ireland and it is attractive for that reason.

But, whatever the reasons, the Green Paper's arguments on Irish unity as well as much else that it contains, must be immensely gratifying to the SDLP. Although their proposal for a condominium under which British and Irish governments should have joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland has found no favour in the document, many of their arguments about the nature of the ultimate political settlement seem to have been accepted. In particular, what has separated the SDLP from Mr Faulkner's official Unionists has been the demand of Ulster Protestants for a separate, identifiably Protestant Irish state. The Green Paper would seem to say that such a demand cannot be conceded.

It now remains to be seen whether, in the light of this interpretation, the SDLP will be prepared to adopt a more positive political stance than they have taken at any time since their withdrawal from Stormont, and to participate in that political dialogue which is now Mr Whitelaw's most fervent desire. There have been some signs recently, notably in the speeches of the party's leader, Mr Gerry Fitt, on what he described as the offensive aspects of life in the Republic of Ireland and the failure of successive Irish governments to do anything to make the Republic more palatable to Northern Protestants, of a more moderate and less intransigent attitude. But the possibility remains, that more reckless counsels will prevail in the SDLP, and that the party will be seduced by the argument that anything they have gained in the Green Paper they have gained by their obduracy and that, for the future, the less they are prepared to compromise, the more they are likely to gain. Such arguments are in keeping with the belief that there will be no civil war, that the threats of Mr William Craig and his followers are mere bluff, that the Protestants will not fight. This belief is based upon a view of the psychology of the Ulster Unionist as being, simply, the psychology of the bully who loses the will to fight with every successive humiliation and who will only fight if you do not stand up to him. It is this view which causes the SDLP to place greater emphasis upon preventing violence in the future rather t'han ending violence in the present.

Reading the Green Paper with all its theories, proposals and possible solutions, one can see an analogy with a discussion by some chess grandmasters of the likely endings to a game which 'has begun with a particularly violent and dramatic opening. But in chess there is also a middle game, and it is then that the picture on the board is liable to change most suddenly. The middle game in Northern Ireland has now begun; perhaps the grandmasters will shortly tell us how long it is likely to last. Perhaps they may also tell us 'how many more pawns they think must be sacrificed in the search for a pretty ending. Scanlon ,and Gormley beaten Daly, had not the elections occurred when both were socalled 'right-wing ' members of the Labour Party National Executive Committee at a time when the Labour government was pushing measures designed to appeal to financiers rather than workers. Actually, and I was present, both did their best to stop statutory wage control and legislation on collective-bargaining but were found guilty by association.

How, then, does one approach this extraordinary little tract? It has no preface, no epilogue, and even no index. Just to cap it all, the overwhelming bulk of its contents have already been published in a Sunday paper. That presumably is the only reason why Paul Ferris never uses the words "'lurch to the left" — they have long since been patented by Miss Nora Beloff who writes for the same editor — and possibly why, after constant historical quotes of workers' earnings, he does not quote the hours worked.

The author fails to recognise three crutial trends: first, the vast improvement in trade union research facilities; second, the recent impact on everyone's understanding of how money is made instead of earned; third, the way in which television is helping — not hindering — trade union representatives and their case.

Let's go in the reverse order to explain these phenomena. Hugh Scanlon in the newspapers is always the scourge of decent folk: yet almost everyone who has seen or heard this man on TV or radio in the last fornight finds him being both so reasonable and explicit that he is near to becoming a national folk-hero (perhaps we could contrast the impact of Gerald Nabarro in the same period). The fact is that Scanlon, Jack Jones, Vic Feather — and when their moment came Joe Gormley, Tom Jackson and Ray Buckton — came across on television as ordinary working people representing their members and explaining their demands. Fleet Street is rushing to buy shares in ITV, and no wonder. When you see Tom Jackson explaining the postworkers' case it is impossible to read into it the Ferris analysis of subversion, or even the Government-Ferris view of inflation.