By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
This Easter Sunday, republicans from all over Ireland and elsewhere across the world will gather to mark the 101st anniversary of the 1916 Rising and those who lost their lives in that heroic endeavour which in 2017 still affects and informs our politics.
They will also remember those who sacrificed their lives in this phase of the conflict for Irish independence. Most of them were young. Young, brave and fearless in the face of great odds. There were those I knew who laid down their lives that others might live in dignity and respect as first class citizens in a free and independent Ireland.
The sacrifice of this generation of republicans and the families of our patriot dead transformed Ireland in a way that not only means we can peacefully work towards Irish reunification, but that a new independent Ireland can be realised.
Much has changed in my lifetime from the days of my youth when the north was a cauldron of war and chaos.
Much has also changed for that dwindling generation of republicans, before my generation, who alone carried the republican torch of freedom.
I was reminded recently of these lean years in photos shown to me by Belfast republican Seamie Drumm. He is pictured, a boy of four, standing with his parents, Jimmy and Maire, at the republican monument in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery.
Amongst the handful of republicans present was Joe Cahill, carrying the Irish tricolour, just released from prison, after serving a life sentence. His comrade Tom Williams was hanged.
Within feet of this small gathering four plain clothes RUC Special Branch officers menacingly looked on. It was 1952.
This Sunday in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery thousands of republicans will be present. The police will be low key, performing traffic duties to facilitate the parade.
More evidence of the changing times we live in was the broadcast last weekend of the Reverend Harold Good on Spanish and French television confirming that he witnessed along with Archbishop Mateo Zuppi the Basque separatist organisation ETA putting its arms beyond use in coordination with the French government.
With Fr Alex Reid, the Reverend Harold Good witnessed the IRA putting its weapons beyond use and said of ETA’s gesture that it was a “hugely significant step in their peace process”.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called on the Spanish and French governments “not to miss this unique opportunity”, this “great development”, and to respond to it by ending the cruel policy of dispersal of political prisoners far away from their families prior to their early release.
ETA’s weapons gesture will significantly boost the Basque peace process and will help unite Basque nationalists in the face of an aggressive Spanish government which has failed to respond positively to ETA’s ceasefire.
The negative attitude of the Spanish government is reminiscent of the attitude of the British Conservative government which squandered the IRA’s first ceasefire called in 1994.
But the peace process in the Basque country is much more durable than heretofore and Arnaldo Otegi, the charismatic leader of Basque nationalists, knows the value of peace and the central role it will play in advancing the cause of Basque independence.
Closer to home the negotiations at Stormont have yielded little after a month of talks.
The British government and the DUP are serving each others’ narrow agenda and are blocking progress on issues which need resolved now, in these negotiations, to ensure the political process is freed up from the crisis-stalking consequences of the failure to deal with key issues over the last ten years.
Both are ignoring the new political realities, post the assembly election, which ended unionist majority rule and saw a majority of MLAs elected on a progressive political agenda to change northern society and bring it into the modern world.
The British government and the DUP would be making a fundamental mistake if they think Sinn Fein are playing some kind of negotiating game of ‘who blinks first’.
The political process needs a clear implementation plan on the outstanding issues.
Without such a plan the Good Friday Agreement institutions may be in cold storage for some time.
In those circumstances, only one alternative is acceptable and that is joint administration of the north by the Irish and British governments.