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2 April 1998 Edition

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British Acts must go

Peace requires British constitutional change



As the Stormont talks moved into their final week, Sinn Féin stressed the need for fundamental change if there is to be lasting peace. Speaking on Wednesday following a meeting with Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams said,

``This process has to be about righting wrongs. Mr Blair has to rise to that challenge. A replay of the 1921 arrangement or a variation of it will not suffice. The two governments have to drive this process forward towards democracy. That means fundamental change to British constitutional legislation from the The Act of Union onwards. A foundation for a lasting peace cannot be established by seeking maximum change in the Irish position while minimising the British position.''

Adams's comments came in advance of a crucial meeting between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair on Wednesday night at which they discussed the prospects and likely shape of a settlement.

Throughout the week Unionist spokesmen continued to demand changes to Article 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution while adamantly refusing to concede an inch in any of the talks strands. Their stance was described by Sinn Féin as ``begrudging and minimalist''.

Gerry Adams urged the two governments to remove the Unionist veto from all proposed institutions. He said the Unionists will not move voluntarily towards the type of transformations needed. ``They will only contemplate this when the two governments start to make it happen,'' he said.

 

Governments hold the key




Brian Campbell assesses the chances of agreement at the talks

THERE is nothing like the final few days of long negotiations to separate the tough from the merely talented. Nor to expose those whose analysis of the conflict will allow them to accept minimal change.

Among nationalists there is a very understandable uncertainty about how tough and clear-headed the SDLP and the Dublin government will be in the coming week. Bertie Ahern's performance in these past days has certainly not added to nationalist confidence. In particular, his statements on Articles Two and Three have been alarming.

Dublin's hasty willingness to give up the bedrock of their Constitution - the very definition of the national territory - in exchange for unspecified institutional reform is not the cleverest piece of negotiating the world has ever seen and anger is rising among nationalists. Fianna Fáil supporters can see when their core values are being offered up cheaply.

It is impossible to know the inner workings of the negotiations but the public perception is of nationalist generosity and unionist intransigence. The suspicion is that unionists are engaged in a negotiating ploy. By sitting on their hands, unionists are waiting for everyone to move towards them. Furthermore, their hardline position - especially as regards the proposed Assembly - is such that they can appear to make concessions in the final crucial 36 hours. If, say, the unionists agree to move from their insistence on an entirely unionist-dominated body to a position where the Assembly would operate a limited form of power-sharing, can we expect other parties to embrace this `breakthrough'? Would these parties then agree to the Unionist demand for powerless all-Ireland bodies as a quid pro quo?

This scenario is supported by talk of `horse-trading' and `splitting the difference', something which may appeal to those who cut their teeth in the less substantial world of industrial disputes. In the real world of politics, however, it is a mistake to think in terms of horse trading. What is needed is the creation of entirely new conditions - a shifting of the ground on which politics are played out in order to eradicate the potential for conflict. It is not about give and take; it is about complete transformation.

Gerry Adams alluded to this after his meeting with Bertie Ahern on Wednesday morning. ``A replay of the 1921 arrangement or a variation of it will not suffice,'' he said. ``The two governments have to drive this process forward towards democracy. That means fundamental change to British constitutional legislation from the Act of Union onwards. A foundation for a lasting peace cannot be established by seeking maximum change in the Irish position while minimising the British position.''

Adams's statement was a succinct restatement of the Sinn Féin analysis in advance of Bertie Ahern's crucial meeting with Tony Blair (which is taking place as we go to press). Adams referred to the Act of Union and subsequent British legislation which claims jurisdiction in Ireland. This legislation has not been raised in the public arena, as against a concerted campaign on Articles 2 and 3, but no agreement can work without British legislation being taken into account.

Nationalists must demand the repeal of The Act of Union (1800), The Government of Ireland Act (1920), The Ireland Act (1949) and The Northern Ireland Constitution Act (1973), all of which stand in the way of a settlement.

The removal of these Acts is part of the necessary transformation and it can be done if the British government has the will to create new structures to move out of conflict. It is an absolutely crucial `if'.

The unionists definitely will not move voluntarily - why should they in a state designed to keep them in a majority? - so the situation can only be transformed when the New Labour government faces up to this historic opportunity.

Tony Blair constantly reminds everyone that they are in the middle of historic events but it is still not clear that he accepts the type of radical changes that are needed. No doubt debates are raging in the British establishment about exactly where their long term interests lie. Next week we should know. Do they want to continue to operate a rotten state which needs to be propped up by the type of murder machine exposed this week by the Sunday Telegraph. Do they want to continue to be condemned by the United Nations, the European Court and every human rights body in the world? Do they really want to continue to preside over discrimination, injustice and inequality?

They have a chance now to put all that behind them. A truly historic opportunity.

Bertie Ahern can help to convince the British - if he is tough and clear-headed. His Wednesday night meeting is crucial. Following that meeting there will be a race to the finishing line. By Friday George Mitchell should have prepared a `synthesis' paper outlining the areas of agreement and disagreement. That will be the basis for next week's final days of talks.

This week, the Sinn Féin talks team arrived at Castle Buildings every day at 9am and left at 10pm. Most of the business was done in bilaterals and in meetings with the two governments. Next week those hours may even be extended as the participants try to make the Thursday deadline.

Will there be an agreement? No one knows but the smart money says no, unless the governments drive things forward. It's their choice.

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