The portrayal of Sinn Féin as a reluctant partner in peace is a fiction that did not fool the Irish voters
Does Sinn Féin deserve no credit for the extraordinary transformation that has taken place in the north of Ireland over the past 15 years? From Peter Mandelson's account of the prime minister's handling of the peace process, one would think that the British government had to drag a stubborn republican leadership kicking and screaming to the negotiating table, and that once there they could only be kept on board by repeated capitulation to republican demands.
The former secretary of state for Northern Ireland has played no significant part in Irish politics since his forced resignation in 2001 over the Hinduja affair, but his portrayal of republicans as reluctant partners in peace - which the British media has eagerly picked up - not only rewrites history but helps to perpetuate an atmosphere of distrust and bad faith as the March 26 deadline for the return of power sharing approaches. For this reason alone it is worth getting the facts straight.
The peace process pre-dated the advent of Tony Blair to power by almost a decade. It does not detract from Blair's commitment to a settlement to recall that in 1988 Gerry Adams and John Hume, the former leader of the nationalist SDLP, began a series of private talks in an attempt to agree a joint strategy to take the gun out of Irish politics.
When the so-called Hume-Adams document was delivered in June 1992, it was greeted not as a promising avenue but with hostility. Hume, who went on to become a joint winner of the Nobel peace prize, reacted with hurt incomprehension. A man of Gandhian commitment to non-violence, he was accused of being everything from an IRA stooge to an outright villain. Unionists reviled him, and his British allies in the Labour party deserted him. The message from John Major's government was clear: there could be no negotiation with "the men of violence", only more war, more death, more misery. If the enemy was genuine about peace, all it had to do was surrender. This may have made Major feel strong, but as a strategy for peace it wasn't going to work.
Reflecting on the response to the Hume-Adams initiative, republican leaders could have been forgiven for falling back on the old dictum that nationalists in the north of Ireland never achieved anything by politics. It could easily have been the signal to give the physical-force tradition its head. But, undeterred, the IRA called a three-day ceasefire, on December 23 1993.
The intention was to show that the IRA had the discipline and cohesion to maintain a ceasefire and that the republican leadership was serious about finding a settlement. But such was the fury provoked by the Christmas ceasefire that Adams wondered aloud if the IRA had declared an intensification of the war. The message was the same: peace had to be on British/unionist terms.
When the IRA declared a "complete cessation of military operations" on August 31 1994, the response was no less hostile. Adams in particular came in for vicious and sustained criticism, including on these pages. Gerry Adams "is a coffin-filler strategically deciding to desist from filling coffins", wrote Edward Pearce in 1994. "Even if his heart is in peace, his words and his actions suggest a man who has neither the confidence nor the courage to drive events," an Observer editorial claimed in the same year. Later Roy Hattersley reflected in the Guardian that "Gerry Adams is part of the Troubles ... by treating him as if he is essential to a permanent settlement, we glorify intransigence, bigotry and extremism". It was as though nothing whatsoever had changed from a year earlier when the Sunday Telegraph, for example, declared that Gerry Adams was "one of the ... most formidable enemies to peace in Ireland's bloodstained history".
Given subsequent events, what lesson do we take from these quotations, apart from evidence of the writers' prejudice and inaccurate judgment? It is the same one that echoes throughout Mandelson's interview, which is that the British government is a patient, reasonable, much put-upon and disinterested party to the whole sorry affair.
In this smug, patronising and valedictory view, the British government can maintain the fiction that the conflict arose of nothing, that the nationalist community never had genuine grievances, that the whole thing was - to quote Jeremy Paxman during his coverage of the recent elections - "tribal" and therefore irrational, beyond politics. Or as the former Tory MP Edward du Cann said: "The English find [the Irish] impossible to understand - why they fight each other, why they speak with such a total lack of logic. There's no reality in Ireland. It's a land of fairies, of pixies and leprechauns."
Mandelson's Ireland may be inhabited by "bloody hard" people, but he colludes with Du Cann in propagating the self-exculpating myths that allowed both Labour and Conservative governments to shore up one side - the unionists - while waging war against republicans and still claiming to be impartial.
The elections last week saw Sinn Féin register its largest vote since partition. The lesson Mandelson and those who nod so approvingly at his interview have still to learn is that the party's success is an acknowledgment by voters that the republican leadership drove the peace process, while the British government and unionists have proved - and in the case of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party continue to prove - dilatory in pursuit of a settlement.
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