Belfast Telegraph

Adams gives Basques a lesson in playing the long game

If Sinn Fein is advising Eta, expect a protracted peace process mired in ambiguity, says Malachi O'Doherty

There can be little doubt that Sinn Fein is serious about bringing an end to violence in the Basque country.

At a recent west Belfast festival, Mairtin O Muilleoir addressed Basque nationalists and told them that they should never have walked away from the talks table.

In fact, he went further: he said that Irish republicans should never have withdrawn from negotiations at any time in the history of the Troubles, going back to the first ceasefire of 1972.

This was a radical statement for a republican to make and it is unlikely that many others would be comfortable asserting that, from the first moment that the IRA got into wheeling and dealing with the old enemy, they should have advanced their cause through machinations and wit rather than through murder and sabotage.

And, of course, at the time of those first talks, the momentum of rage on the streets and the enthusiasm for war were so high that it is unlikely that the fire that had been recklessly lit could have been easily dampened down.

But the lesson republicans learned in time is that you can do an awful lot at the table.

They knew that even in 1972, when they played a sophisticated game against the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw and his emissary Philip Woodfield, outflanking them on several points in the preparations for a ceasefire - essentially asserting the right to bear arms and patrol the streets, never formally conceded, of course, and doing much more to prove to the British that they would not be a pushover.

Woodfield went away from the preparatory talks with Gerry Adams, remarking on what a reasonable chap he was and what a pity it was that he hadn't gone to university. When he saw the outworking of the ceasefire and its collapse he must have understood more clearly that he had been dealing with a young man who would smile at him and then shaft him every way he could.

So when Adams goes to the Basque country to facilitate peace-making, he goes as a seasoned peace-processor who understands that talks aren't the means for ending conflict, but the alternative means for pressing your advantage.

That is how the peace process was managed in Northern Ireland - not as a negotiation towards a new dispensation that would commence when the talks ended, but as an alternative political framework in itself.

Those who thought that a couple of years of negotiation would lead to a settlement and stability in Northern Ireland learned that peace-processing was actually the whole of politics and that deadlock after deadlock would follow for 16 years from the first ceasefire before full devolution would be achieved.

It was a long process designed to supplant the long war.

If Eta is being advised by the architects of the Irish peace process, then the most likely lesson that they will learn is how to drag it out, how to frame their statements ambiguously, not to end disagreement, but to bring everyone's focus to bear on the issues that concern Eta and to reap maximum benefit from minimal concession, on the understanding that people will be just grateful that the bombing has stopped.

Yet, in travelling to Spain with disgraced former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, to take some kudos for the advance of the peace process there, Adams is not playing the same role that he played in Ireland.

Here he was the game-master. Here he kept other parties engaged on hopes that he delivered as slowly as he possibly could.

He would still be trying to draw out the negotiations under the implied threat that violence could return but for 9/11.

Once the skyscrapers had been tumbled by terrorists in Manhattan, it was inconceivable that Irish-America would lend vital political support to those who had trashed high-rise buildings in London. Full decommissioning had to follow.

But, in Spain, he plays a role closer to that which his Irish-American sponsors played here.

He may understand better than Bruce Morrison, or Niall O'Dowd, did how the long game works in a protracted peace process.

Foreign backers usually get involved in a process in order to take some credit for tangible results. But, if the peace process is played by the rules coined by Gerry Adams, then you wait a long time for those results.

Over and over again, Bill Clinton came over here, hoping to receive the breakthrough from the IRA. But the key strategy of the IRA was procrastination, as far as viable, on decommissioning, on declaring the war over and on wrapping up its criminal empire.

When you have run out of things to stall on, you don't have a process any more. That's what Eta will have learned from Gerry Adams. Whether they have a hand to play, or as much nerve as Adams had for the long game, is another matter.

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