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27 February 1997 Edition

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Bridges and ballot boxes

Mícheál MacDonncha sees efforts to restore the peace process continuing despite electoral confrontations

There was a striking contrast between the demeanour of John Hume as he arrived at Dublin Airport last Thursday and the tone of his article in that morning's Irish News. Hume seemed almost surprised that his article had caused such a stir with talk of the biggest rift yet between himself and Gerry Adams.

The SDLP leader seemed anxious to play down the row. He had replied to the call from Sinn Féin Chair Mitchel McLaughlin for an electoral arrangement between the two parties which could yield eight Westminster seats for nationalists. Hume's reply was trenchant and extremely hostile to Sinn Féin. He accused the party of intending ``to cast us aside''. Voting for Sinn Féin was voting for armed struggle. Republicans had ``got it wrong'' since the start of the Troubles and this had led to all the deaths in the conflict.

What brought on such an over-the-top and, it must be admitted, uncharacteristic attack from the SDLP leader? The clue was in the final paragraphs of the piece where he addressed himself to those former SDLP voters who had crossed to Sinn Féin in last May's elections. He said they had lent their votes to Sinn Féin and the party had misused them. There was the rub. In fact the entire article was aimed primarily at those voters.

There is nothing new in this. In every election since Sinn Féin entered the fray in the Six Counties in 1982, the SDLP has launched a similar attack on the republican party during the campaign. Even the Irish Times which reprinted Hume's article said that ``only the most naive would miss the strong element of electioneering in the assault on Sinn Féin''.

John Hume was quick to point out in media interviews that, despite his onslaught, his dialogue with Gerry Adams continues in their joint efforts to restore the peace process. Two days after Hume's article Gerry Adams spelt out Sinn Féin's position on the issues which need to be addressed by the British government if the peace process is to be rebuilt.

Adams reiterated that the peace strategy is the ``cornerstone of Sinn Féin policy''. One of the key problems is that even if there was a peaceful environment, including a renewed IRA cessation, no-one can tell when Sinn Féin would be admitted to talks. But the British government can remedy that:

``When a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered we could, with credibility, seek to persuade the IRA to restore the cessation of August 1994.''

Adams identified four key issues which the British government needs to address:

The removal of preconditions to and in negotiations
A definite timeframe for negotiations.
Confidence-building measures
Sinn Féin entry to negotiations.
In the area of preconditions the key point is that the decommissioning precondition be removed in a way that prevents its restoration as a barrier in talks. Sinn Féin is agreed that the gun needs to be removed from Irish politics and has accepted the Mitchell Principles; the issue now needs to be dealt with in a way most likely to succeed. That is as part of negotiations, not as a precondition, a preliminary, or a hurdle inside the talks. A resolution of this issue would be part of an agreed outcome, on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

A timeframe for negotiations is also essential and Adams urged both governments to take the lead in introducing one. While hope of a rebuilt peace process has not been eroded entirely the confidence which is necessary during such a process has. The Sinn Féin President said that an unequivocal restoration of the cessation would be the most important confidence-building measure on the IRA's part. But Britain needs to act in the areas of confidence-building in which it singularly failed during the last cessation. These areas are prisoners, emergency legislation, policing and social and economic equality. Action could be taken here immediately without prejudice to the negotiations.

Most commentators noted a key paragraph in Adams's statement on the IRA cessation:

``Sinn Féin believes that any restoration by the IRA of the cessation of August 1994 will be genuinely unequivocal, containing a clear and unambiguous commitment to enhance a genuine peace process.''

But most commentators also failed to note the context. Adams said that Sinn Féin asserted the rights of its voters to be represented at negotiations without any preconditions, including an IRA cessation. Sinn Féin's practical efforts to rebuild the peace process are based on the position of the two governments that Sinn Féin participation requires a restoration of the IRA cessation.

Last weekend's statement was an attempt, in Adams's words, to clarfiy the Sinn Féin position to the British government in a way which allows them space. He urged John Major to put electoral considerations aside and to avail of the peace opportunity which still exists.

Some of this was echoed in the remarks of Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern at a Campaign for Democracy public meeting in Belfast on Monday 24 February. ``Our main eye needs to be on peace, not on our own electorate,'' he said. Ahern began by saying he was glad to be on a platform made up of the three parties which initiatied the peace process - Fianna Fáil, the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Ahern made a strong call for a renewed IRA cessation. This would see the ``spotlight thrown where it belongs'' - on the intransigent parties. He belived the Ground Rules for negotiations mean the British government will no longer have the power to block access to any party that has renounced violence, even if other parties walk out of the negotiations. He criticised the British government for its failure to turn its claimed ``rigorous impartiality'' in the Six Counties into reality. While nationalists had guaranteed not to coerce unionists, nationalists ``never had any such guarantee of freedom from coercion''. So far the Stormont talks have ``dealt with nothing but decommissioning''.

Mitchel McLaughlin was on the platform with Bertie Ahern and declared that Sinn Fein ``wants peace, is suing for peace and wants a democratic solution''. He asserted that the peace process is unstoppable although he warned that any British government in hock to the unionists ``would not commit to the peace process''.

``David Trimble is effectively the prime minister of the Six Counties''. He warned of the stalemate we would face in the event of a hung parliament in Britain after the next election.

``We need a strong government in London so that progress can be made,'' said McLaughlin. Gerry Adams and John Hume were nonetheless still working to get movement from Major, and the two nationalist leaders need support.

McLaughlin criticised John Bruton for closing down contact with Sinn Féin and a ``return to the non-politics of isolation of 15.5 per cent of the voters in the North''. But McLaughlin's main focus was on the next British government; if it is not dependent on unionists for survival and if it determines to rebuild the peace process then success can be achieved.

That is an outcome every player will be keeping an eye on in the months ahead, even if the other eye is on electoral opponents.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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