The IRA's Political Head Takes Lessons in Peacemaking from the ANC


Johannesburg, South Africa -- Gerry Adams came to South Africa last week and seemed almost awed that those he had once viewed as comrades in arms were now such proponents of peace.

The ties of support between the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress are old. Both saw themselves as the representative of oppressed people opposing an illegitimate government.

But now the ANC has become part of a bridge across what once seemed a yawning chasm of ethnic strife much like the entrenched schism in the six counties of Northern Ireland. Mr. Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, which has started negotiations with the British government, appeared eager to take bridge-building lessons during his week at the tip of Africa.

"When I consider what these people went through over the last couple of decades," he said of his ANC hosts, "their generosity of spirit is almost awe-inspiring. What happened in this country to a problem we were always told was intractable is a powerful shaft of light that points the way for all of us."

Gerry Adams is no Nelson Mandela. After all, Mr. Mandela's ANC garnered over 60 percent of the vote in South Africa's first free election; Sinn Fein has never captured the support of a majority of Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics.

But like Mr. Mandela, he represents those who see violence as the only way to get out from under the yoke of oppression.

As Mr. Adams explained in an interview with South African-based foreign journalists, the foundation of the current search for peace in Northern Ireland was much the same as that in South Africa: a recognition that things could not continue as they had in the past.

"We were at a military stalemate," Mr. Adams said. "Neither of the two sides was going to win militarily. There had to be another solution."

It took a similar recognition by the British government of John Major to get the negotiation process going. And, just as Mr. Adams had to convince his followers that it was worth talking to the hated oppressors, the British, so Mr. Major had to bring his side to the table for talks with those who had been denounced as the worst form of terrorists for decades.

In that sense, Mr. Major played the role that F. W. de Klerk did in South Africa. Like Mr. Major's Conservatives and the IRA, Mr. de Klerk's National Party has spent years convincing its constituents that the ANC was a bunch of dangerous, untrustworthy terrorists who represented the forces of chaos.

In many ways, the leap that Mr. Major took was not nearly as big as that of Mr. de Klerk. For instance, in South Africa, almost all political prisoners were freed not long after Mr. Mandela was released, and those in exile were allowed to return. That has not happened in Northern Ireland.

Moreover, the current holdup in the Irish negotiations is over the disarming of the IRA, something that was never required of the ANC. Indeed, after Mr. Mandela's unconditional release, he called for a continuation of the armed struggle against the National Party government.

But, unlike Mr. de Klerk, Mr. Major does not face a hostile world, sanctioning and isolating him because of his treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Thus he comes to the table in a stronger position and can demand more.

Even the stop-start aspect of the negotiations seems familiar in South Africa. Just as there were many times that the talks aimed at bringing about a democratic solution in this country seemed on the brink of collapse, so there was also a sense of inevitability that they would go on.

In South Africa, they called it developing a "culture of negotiation." Mr. Adams talked about the "psychology of peace." In both cases, turning onto the road to peace is a move of such power that it is probably irreversible.

Almost certainly there will be major obstacles in that road in Northern Ireland. But a permanent change of direction seems unlikely.

Still, there is one major piece that has yet to fall into place in Northern Ireland: That country has yet to find its Constand Viljoen, a former South African general who advocates a homeland where whites can live away from blacks.

General Viljoen, who ran in the election as head of a party called the Freedom Front, and other right-wing whites were among the last people to be called into the negotiation process. Most of their leaders -- from the Conservative Party's head Ferdi, Hartzenberg, to Eugene TerreBlanche, leader of the neo-Nazi AWB, tried to, at best, to stall the negotiations and ended up calling for a boycott of the election.

But General Viljoen participated, providing a way for the right wing to take its head out of the sand and get on board. The majority of right-wing whites came along, perhaps more with resignation than enthusiasm, but in the process they forced Mr. TerreBlanche, and those of his ilk, to the sidelines.

No such figure has emerged among the unionists in Northern Ireland, someone to bring those Protestants who have fought the IRA -- bomb for bomb, killing for killing -- to the negotiating table, thereby marginalizing extremist leaders like the Rev. Ian Paisley.

"I talked with Mr. Viljoen," Mr. Adams said of his visit. "Up until four days before the election, he was still planning for war. Four days. But then he saw the need for change."

Mr. Adams claimed that Sinn Fein's contact with grass-roots unionists indicates that there is a similar recognition of the need for change but that there is no leadership in that direction.

"I don't think it was any accident that Mr. Viljoen did not come out of the party structure of the National Party or the Conservative Party," Mr. Adams said.

"Once there is an acceptance of the need for change, then it is a matter of negotiating how much change there can be, and what form of change," he said.

"It's easier to make war. It's the macho thing. It's something you do with your friends. It's harder to make peace. That's something you have to do with your enemies."

Michael Hill is The Baltimore Sun's correspondent in South Africa.

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