Dayan Jayatilleka’s Long War: The Irish Dimension

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on 24 December 2013.



The road to hell is paved with false analogies.

Dr Jayatilleka’s book has had good coverage in many places, including this paper. I have been thinking about it again after some dialogue with people in Northern Ireland and in Sri Lanka about the question of justifiable violence.

At one point in the book, Dr Jayatilleka remarked about Prabakharan: “He burnt his boats as well as his bridges”.

This reminded me of Deaglán de Bréadún, of the Irish Times, who on a daily basis followed the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He wrote about the Northern Ireland peace process in his book The Far Side of Revenge. My favourite quotation in the book is from a Sinn Fein spokesman, asked about the decommissioning of IRA arms. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”.

Beware of Irishmen Bearing Advice

Dr Jayatilleka discusses the visit of John Hume to Sri Lanka. By the time Hume received his Nobel Peace Prize (shared with David Trimble) his health had been broken by his long fight for peace, a fight that entailed, in his words “spilling sweat instead of blood”. Hume was horribly wrong about Sri Lanka. I am proud to have coined the phrase: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”.

Hume’s greatness lay in the fact that stubbornly, over many years, he was prepared to be ostracised for talking to the men of violence. One of those men of violence, Martin McGuinness, also became a man of peace. McGuinness was in the right place at the right time and had the “freedom fighting” credentials to persuade the Provisional IRA to persevere with talks that were frustrating for all concerned and eventually got them to lay down their arms.

Mc Guinness came to Sri Lanka to advise us. My friend, the Reverend Harold Good is not naive about the horrors of terrorism. It was Harold, winner of the Gandhi Peace Award, who announced to the world that the IRA had surrendered their arms to General de Chastelaine. Harold counts McGuinness as his friend, following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. When McGuinness ran for the presidency of the Republic of Ireland, Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike president.”

How unlike the LTTE

Can one imagine Prabakharan doing good job as a minister in the Northern province or being a “circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President” of a united Sri Lanka (or, indeed, chief minister of Tamil Nadu)?

McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticized the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”.

Dr Jayatilleka Explains Why McGuinness Was Wrong.

Dr Jayatilleka is correct in saying: “John Hume’s experience and message had absolutely nothing to offer Sri Lanka as concerns the main aspects of its own conflict in 2002: the war, the LTTE and Mr Prabakharan”. He asks, “In Northern Ireland, who played Prabakharan?”  Provisional IRA leaders tended to be shadowy figures, not cult leaders like Prabakharan. In Sri Lanka, it would have been unlikely that Hume, McGuinness or  the good Reverend Good, would have survived. “Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran were in fact talking to the ‘men of violence’ over a nice cuppa when these men of violence turned rather more violent, pulled out their automatics and blew their hosts away”. “Neelan Tiruchelvam was doing a John Hume and would have picked up a Peace Prize of two but he was blasted yards away from his law offices”. “Many Tamil leaders had been murdered, and not a single one of them (arguably except for Kumar Ponnambalam) by a Sinhalese”.

“Mr Hume finally had US Senator George Mitchell. Our equivalent of a big power foreign mediator was Rajiv Gandhi, pulverised to a pulp in Tamil Nadu by a Tiger suicide killer. Sri Lanka’s Tony Blairs, David Trimbles and Bertie Aherns were all dead or half-blind”.

Why Did the Irish Troubles End?

Peter Taylor, in his book Brits,  provides convincing evidence  to show that  British intelligence had improved to such an extent that the IRA were well aware that they could not possibly win. On their side, the British were sensible enough to know that they could not achieve a definitive military defeat of the IRA. Both sides, (even under Thatcher) were for a long time edging towards compromise.

The Actors

De Bréadún provides pithy pen portraits of key participants. Of Bill Clinton, he says: “A needy man met a needy people”. He quotes George Mitchell: “No-one can really have a chance in a society dominated by fear, hatred and violence…a deadly ritual in which most of the victims are innocent”.

Three Catholic Northern Ireland citizens were essential to the peace process. John Hume, of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, sacrificed his health representing the nationalist community’s aspirations for an end to discrimination. Although Hume was a fervent upholder of non-violence, he was courageous enough to maintain dialogue with the men of violence, chiefly through Gerry Adams.

De Bréadún writes of Gerry Adams, “He failed to match the stereotype of the firebreathing subversive, choosing instead to act as a conduit for the grievances of the grass roots”.

While Adams dealt with the broad strategic sweep, Martin McGuinness proved to be a canny negotiator. According to a senior Dublin civil servant: “The boy revolutionary developed into a mature and skilful politician”. De Bréadún writes: “Mc Guinness got respect in his own right, thanks to his formidable history as an activist and his direct and commanding personality. If Adams was the architect of the republican project, McGuinness was the engineer”.

On the Unionist side, David Trimble had been involved with the right-wing, paramilitary-linked Vanguard in the early 1970s before he joined the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party. As leader of the UUP he could not afford to be too “moderate”. The Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist party was constantly raising the “No surrender. No popery” ante and Trimble had to be seen to support triumphalist loyalist marches through Catholic areas.

Constructive ambiguity

Many in Ireland regarded the peace process with scepticism, concerned that it would bring men of violence into the heart of democracy. Symbolic issues like policing and decommissioning provided obstacles. In order to carry his party with him, Trimble had to insist that the IRA decommission its arms, even though that insistence was an irrelevant and a frustrating hindrance to negotiation. McGuinness and Adams had great authority with the rank and file of the IRA but could not sell decommissioning, as it would be seen as surrender without achieving the aim of a united Ireland.

To cut a convoluted story short, peace was achieved through a process of constructive ambiguity, which allowed all actors to say they had not surrendered. Talks resumed in 1993, after Clinton listened to Sinn Féin. On April 10, 1998, the British and Irish governments formulated the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, and 2007 elections, the DUP and Sinn Féin formed a government in May 2007. Paisley became First Minister and McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister,

The nationalists could say that their struggle had entered a new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Adams’s Sinn Fein. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable naysayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.