New side advert

11 December 1997 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Conflicting signals on the peace process

A week may be a long time in politics, but how long is Fianna Fáil's memory? Marca Mac Ruairi ponders that question

OVER recent weeks the Dublin government has been sending out conflicting and confusing messages as to what it expects from the peace process.

And this is at a time when politicians from all parties in the north and both the British and Irish governments are currently sitting down in Stormont to try and establish an agenda on which the peace process can proceed.

While much history has been made in recent months with handshakes and high profile meetings, substantive progress in terms of seeking a solution to the conflict in Ireland remains elusive.

The Unionist Party has in many ways belittled the process, making presentations amounting to no more than one sentence long and engaging in other prevarications.

Last week it was agreed that in order to move the talks on, two representatives of each party would go into a series of closed sessions in order to hammer out an agreed agenda. It is now hoped that real negotiations will begin in the New Year once this agenda has been established.

At this juncture in any negotiating process the parties, having stated their positions, should be laying down the issues they feel require debate and answers from their opponents. It should be a time of exploration between negotiators

Fianna Fáil is in danger of repeating the mistake made by John Bruton, who felt that negotiations were between two opposing factions in a corner of Ireland. He presented himself as a benign facilitator - in effect his position bolstered unionism and the status quo
Moreover, negotiations are in essence about trying to maximise gains for given opposing positions - there is no point in entering talks but with that understanding. But to row back from stated positions before the negotiations even begin beggars belief.

It is strange therefore, at such a sensitive time, that conflicting statements as to its position have been emanating from the Irish government through the media, many of which serve only to undermine the nationalist position. And all this while the Unionists have not budged an inch.

On taking up his position as Minister for Foreign Affairs in Dublin several months ago, we heard David Andrews saying that there would never be a united Ireland in his lifetime. This brash statement was followed up several weeks ago when he said that he expected cross border institutions would result from the talks process. These would have executive powers akin to those of a government. Screaming foul, unionists threw a tantrum and demanded an apology. Before the week was out Dublin duly supplied what they wished for - Andrews apologised for and retracted the cross-border institutions projection.

Last Thursday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Bertie Ahern expressed his government's willingness to drop Articles 2 and 3 from the Constitution of the 26 Counties and again, just days later, he qualified it by saying that it would only happen in the context of the revision of the Government of Ireland Act by Britain. He has also gone on record last week as saying that he can foresee an assembly in the north and expressed his satisfaction at the prospect of David Trimble as its prime-minister.

In the same interview Ahern went further; he suggested that the Irish government is prepared to enshrine in its constitution the right of the majority of the people in the Six Counties to determine their own future.

Whatever the rationale behind this flurry of conflicting statements, they will have fundamentally weakened the negotiating hand of the Dublin government.

It was an absolute mistake of scandalous proportions to apologise for saying that cross border institutions with executives powers would arise from the peace process and naive to suggest that unionists could veto any proposed settlement.

And as the public pronouncements swing from one position to another it must be driven home that the conflict in the north cannot be resolved by conceding something to one group and then something to the other, in doing so negating the first concession. Fianna Fáil is in danger of repeating the mistake made by John Bruton, who felt that negotiations were between two opposing factions in a corner of Ireland. He presented himself as a benign facilitator - in effect his position bolstered unionism and the status quo.

Attempting to allay unionist fears merely serves to encourage their intransigence. Ultimately, for a lasting peace to be established, the status quo cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. There is a need for real change with more than just verbal platitudes to Irish nationalists in the north and and an acknowledgement of their right to have abstract aspirations. The Irish government is in a position to play a key role in moving the situation forward, but can only do so from a position of strength.

By apologising to David Trimble for proposing the concept of cross border institutions, the Dublin Government has undermined the very process of setting an agenda for substantive talks currently being undertaken at Stormont. The apology will act as encouragement to the unionists to accept no change and may in effect be used as a bulwark to narrow the agenda to a purely unionist one.

Similarly, the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 from the Constitution of the 26 Counties cannot be viewed simply as a quid pro quo to the revision of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act by the British government. Any movement on it must rather be part of an all-encompassing, all-Ireland settlement which supersedes the existence of both Articles and in doing so makes them irrelevant.

The conflict in Ireland has not arisen as a result of unexplainable and irrational communal tensions but out of inequalities, injustices and discrimination perpetrated by both British and Unionist governments over decades and from the unresolved relationship between Britain and Ireland resulting from Britain's involvement in Irish affairs. Talking of tinkering with Articles 2 and 3 totally misses the point.

The present Dublin government is in the enviable position of being able to play a key role in putting this conflict behind us for good, establishing an Ireland that can draw on the allegiance of all its citizens. It needs to have a clear agenda and vision of where it is going and how this can be established, remembering that hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens are living in the Six Counties and for whom both the status quo and internal solutions are unacceptable.

For their part, it is incumbent on the British government to make it clear to the Unionists that they cannot simply go on saying no and that they must come to an accommodation with the rest of us living on the island.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

Powered by Phoenix Media Group