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15 January 1998 Edition

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A sop to unionists

By Marcas Mac Ruairi

The document presented for discussion by the governments on Monday, `The Propositions on Heads of Agreement', represents an intervention to impose an agenda on the talks.

There is a belief that the document pushes a unionist agenda. It is therefore important that the governments are reminded that there can be no retreat from positions they have previously agreed to. In particular, nationalist opinion firmly agreed there can be no internal settlement and it would be a serious mistake if that was reneged on.

The presentation of the document to the political parties at Stormont on Monday came after a flurry of diplomatic activity at the weekend which was preceded by a month during which elements from within the Unionist Party and both the smaller loyalist parties threatened to walk out of the talks process. These threats and warnings of a crisis were made against a background of attacks on innocent Catholics during which three young men were killed. The threats and sectarian murders were cynically manipulated by the unionist leadership and presented in such a way through the media as to intimidate and spook the governments into action.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionists have all along refused to engage with Sinn Fein and have adopted stalling tactics throughout. If there was a crisis it was caused by their non-engagement.

Issues of equality and demilitarisation have been resolutely kept off the agenda by unionists, with the backing of the British government's influential security establishment. Not a single prisoner has been released by the British government. On the ground, military posts have been strengthened and nationalist concerns about the RUC have not even been considered.

Equality in areas such as employment and culture is nowhere near being tackled.

Cries of bias were unsustainable. The evidence is simply not there. Indeed, last weekend' s Sunday Tribune reported that: ``UDP activists readily admit that the stream of concessions to the IRA about which their party has complained is more of a perception than a reality.''

And behind the spurious claims, David Trimble was in regular contact with Tony Blair, urging him to calm this unionist-inspired `crisis' bty favouring unionists in the process. It was a calculated exploitation of the sectarian murders of Catholics.

The suspicion has to be that the unionist and loyalist leadershipsrecognised that the talks must produce fundamental change -- and soon. There must be a society based on justice and equality, something they are finding impossible to deal with. They therefore went outside the process to make sure that change didn't happen.

As 12 January approached the ball was firmly in the court of the two governments. Ahern and Blair had a choice. They could back unionist and loyalist demands for no change -- in other words, follow the fine tradition of playing the Orange Card.

Or they could push forward a process which will bring real change.

The perception is that they opted for the former and that an agenda has been introduced through `The Propositions on Heads of Agreement' with an in-built leaning towards unionism. This has created a sense of real unease.

Sinn Fein made it clear before Monday that the Orange Card was being played. The two governments were told they should not give way to unionist threats and sectarian murders. They were in no doubt that Sinn Fein was opposed to the document.

The governments, by presenting a sop to Trimble, have made a serious mistake. They have only entrenched the `not-an-inch' mentality of unionism.

Compounding this entrenchment, Seamus Mallon, in praise of the document, highlighted how it gave both a little pain and a little comfort to everybody. Such comments further bolster unionist intransigence. This is not the sort of parity required to resolve the problem of partition. There is a fundamental inequality which cannot be addresses by a little pain here and a little bit of comfort there. Fundamental, far reaching change is needed.

The talks process is about resolving human rights abuse, inequality and the continued legacy of British involvement in Ireland.

The two governments must understand that there can be no retreating from their previously stated positions. There can be no internal settlement. The reason there is a process in the first place is because partition has failed.

It has failed nationalists with disastrous consequences. But it has also failed unionists and has not served to ensure their own economic and social stability. It has failed the whole island in terms of human rights, cultural development, economic prosperity and social stability.

For the thousands who have suffered discrimination, imprisonment and death as a result of partition, the status quo can simply not be allowed to prevail. There needs to be fundamental political and constitutional change.

Unionists must be brought to realise this; they must engage in a real dialogue on the basis that fundamental change is going to happen. Progress cannot be coralled by their intransigence, insecurity and lack of confidence in their own arguments.

The process must deal with all the issues honestly.

For its part, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it is determined to make it work and will engage in the talks confidently, bringing its own analysis to the table without diluting its position on the need for an all-Ireland settlement.

It is important that the governments approach the task in hand with the same determination to produce a lasting settlement. They must ensure that the process has the dynamic for change.
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