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19 March 1998 Edition

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Getting down to business

By Brian Campbell

As the green rivers of St Patrick's Day flow away, so does the high-blown rhetoric surrounding the Stormont talks. The integrity of the quarrel remains and no amount of British government spin-doctoring can hide the fact that the negotiations have a lot of ground to make up in their last weeks.

When David Trimble chose to raise the issue of decommissioning in his speech to the National Press Club in Washington on St Patrick's Day, it wasn't difficult to see that Unionists are still wedded to an old, failed agenda. Either that, or they are looking for an escape route from the talks.

If David Trimble thought that by raising decommissioning he could divert attention from his party's failure to engage fully in the talks, he was badly mistaken. The pressure was on Trimble in Washington - he was told in no uncertain terms that he must talk to Sinn Féin. A real talks process requires enagagement between all the parties.

President Clinton pointedly quoted his predecessor, President Kennedy talking about contacts with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War when he said: ``Civility is not a sign of weakness''. It was a clear warning to the Ulster Unionists that they should stop their puerile rudeness and begin to engage.

It is a bitter pill for Unionists to swallow, not least because it breaks the habit of a lifetime. Or, more accurately, of several lifetimes. The Unionist mindset regards republicans as less than equal citizens. By engaging with Sinn Féin, the Unionist political leadership would take the first psychological step towards acknowledging equality. No wonder it is a difficult step. But it is an inevitable one and it speaks volumes about David Trimble's political leadership that he has allowed himself to be backed into this particular corner. Any political newcomer could have seen it coming. A simple decision six months ago to fully engage would have saved him this looming difficulty.

But more importantly, when he does engage, what will Trimble negotiate about? It is becoming clear that the talks must produce radical change if they are not to perpetuate the conflict. A deep-seated problem demands a deep-seated solution. But Trimble's pronouncements in Washington show that he is still fighting a rearguard action. In coded language he dismissed any prospect of the type of all-Ireland bodies favoured by nationalists: ``There are some elements still hankering after coercion, in terms not just of reaching a so-called agreement but also in terms of the operation of any relationship, but it must be obvious to anyone who pauses to think that any relationship that is developed has to be based on agreement, on co-operation, not on coercion.''

In that statement lies the problem for David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists. What is the state of `Northern Ireland' if not a relationship based on coercion? No-one ever asked the nationalist population for their agreement to being placed under Unionist and British rule. Therefore, logically, if Unionists reject coercion - and David Trimble says they do - then new arrangements are called for.

It is an historic opportunity, beginning when the talks participants sit down on Monday morning. And it is an historic opportunity which naturally causes tremendous difficulties for those who wish to retain the status quo by arguing for an internal settlement. The simple truth is that an internal settlement is not viable. What is on the table - and what is crucially at issue for three weeks from next Monday - is how far from the status quo the talks can take us.
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