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4 December 1997 Edition

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New talks format a test for Unionists

THE peace talks at Stormont are set to move up a gear following agreement on Tuesday to hold discussions with only two representatives of each party.

This new format puts the ball firmly in the Unionists' court. It will show whether they are genuinely committed to working to find a way forward.

Three months into the talks there is no sign of significant progress from Stormont. Unionists have made a mockery of the process by refusing to either engage with Sinn Féin or in serious negotiations. Their submissions have ranged from three sentences long to eight lines.

Following an intensive two week period of bilateral discussions in Strand 1 (dealing with relationships in the North and chaired by the British Government) and Strand 2 (dealing with All-Ireland and chaired by Senator George Mitchell) there has still been no agreement.

The Unionist leadership has failed to show imagination in the face of the opportunity the talks offer and, governed by a siege psychcology and fear of Lundy characters, it has shied away from being seen talking to republicans.

With between 40 and 50 people involved in round table negotiations, observers now hope that a new approach with reduced numbers may offer a way forward.

On a two monthly basis a Plenary Review is held to assess progress. It was in session over the past two weeks with no progress to consider.

On Tuesday of this week, the party leaders were called to a brief session of the talks by Senator Mitchell and it was agreed that two representatives of each party would meet as a new working group for a round of talks. Getting down to work yesterday, the new group will hopefully give the Unionists space to engage in serious negotiations. The parties will now set themselves the task of trying to make an agreed statement of the broad areas for negotiation by the New Year.

Welcoming the news Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams commented: ``We have seen some progress and I welcome that. This is a significant little step forward. We have seen some progress and we should build upon it.'' But he also cautioned that the main problem was not the structure of the talks but a lack of political will from the Unionists.

Talks Chairman, Senator Mitchell has described the move as ``getting down to brass tacks.''

For republicans the lack of progress has been frustrating and, aware of this, our political enemies in the establishment and media have tried to nurture rumours of discontent and internal dissension.

Remaining committed to their peace project, Republicans will now be looking for urgent progress on three fronts - equality, human rights and demilitarisation. Continued failure to act on these, which should be immediately addressed aside from the talks, has been eroding confidence in the process.

Sinn Féin has been arguing for movement on equal rights for some time, movement which would help to establish confidence in the talks as a vehicle which can deliver peace and progress.

Unionism now needs to rise above its psychological weaknesses and play a full and active role in the talks process and search for peace.


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