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16 September 2004 Edition

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Leeds Castle: Setting the scene for success or failure

By Mícheál MacDonncha

The talks at Leeds Castle this week were preceded on 10 September by a meeting between Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the latter's Sedgefield constituency. After the meeting Blair spoke to the media and warned that "final decisions have got to be made, and they've got to be made in a way that brings closure".

Writing in The Irish Times the next day British Secretary of State in the Six Counties, Paul Murphy, sounded a threatening note: "If we fail next week we will have to find another way." He spoke of an "alternative based on direct rule" that would be "detrimental and unwelcome in different ways to every side in Northern Ireland". In the course of his article Murphy never mentioned the wider Irish context but said that "in the context of devolution across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, the British government does not regard direct rule of Northern Ireland as an acceptable solution in the medium term".

If that is the case then the British government has a funny way of showing it because, through its actions since the Good Friday Agreement six years ago, the periods of direct rule have exceeded those when there has been a functioning Assembly, Executive and all-Ireland Ministerial Council. It is Murphy's NIO that has engineered the four suspensions of the institutions and that has slowed progress to a standstill.

Neither Blair nor Murphy acknowledged the responsibility of their Government for its many unfulfilled obligations under the Agreement. Instead they ignored most of the issues and reduced their agenda for Leeds Castle to a propaganda soundbite - "paramilitary activity and power-sharing". In two sentences Murphy neatly absolved his Government of responsibility, placed the primary onus on republicans and the secondary obligation on unionists: "Paramilitary groups must cease their activities once and for all and their weapons must be put beyond use. In response, unionists must commit themselves fully and wholeheartedly to all the political institutions."

It is taken for granted that Sinn Féin will not object to sharing power with unionists even though unionist paramilitaries are still active and have not decommissioned. And, of course, Sinn Féin has set no such pre-conditions for participation yet unionists have been indulged in this exact blocking tactic at every turn by the British government.

On Monday Gerry Adams reminded people of the DUP's wish list which includes a return to unionist rule under cover of a 'voluntary coalition' or 'corporate Assembly', erosion of independence of ministers, decoupling of the offices of First and Deputy First Minister, ending cross-community vote requirement on key issues in the Assembly, a 30-year moratorium on a Border poll, dilution of all-Ireland structures and reversal of the equality and human rights agendas. Adams said these DUP demands were "non-starters".

Many in the media have turned a blind eye to the DUP's position, preferring to linger over the Taoiseach's "warm" references to his contacts with the party over the summer. In a facile editorial on Monday The Irish Times referred to Sinn Féin and the DUP as "the extremes". But as Gerry Adams again pointed out, it is the DUP that represents the anti-Agreement minority within the Six Counties, within Ireland and between the two islands.

So as the scene is set for the Leeds Castle talks the question is will we see the British and Irish governments living up to their obligations to implement the Agreement or will they once again appease anti-Agreement Unionism? The choice is between guaranteeing basic rights and entitlements for all, regardless of political or religious creed, or allowing negative unionism to halt progress. Republicans will be flexible provided that equality is the basis for moving forward. Anything less will not be acceptable.

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