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6 March 1997 Edition

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Trimble's Orange cord


John Bruton is not renowned for his perfect timing or well-directed political interventions. Last weekend he made a statement which misinterpreted the Sinn Féin position on the issue of unionist consent and inferred that republicans should accept a unionist veto; the next day the extent of the unionist veto on the Irish policy of the Major government was revealed in a leaked government memo.

The confidential memo which was revealed in a British Sunday newspaper was from a private meeting between Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and British Political Development Minister Michael Ancram. The memo said Trimble sought a personal veto from the British government to allow him to call a halt to negotiations. He wanted a special ``communications cord to halt talks if required''. He wanted to know what would happen in the event of an IRA ceasefire if Sinn Féin ``showed at the gate'' of the talks. His concern was to keep the party out using the decommissioning demand.

On the eve of the suspension of the Stormont talks on Wednesday 5 March Dublin government sources were acknowledging to the media that unionists were not willing to engage in negotiations with Sinn Féin even in the event of a renewed IRA ceasefire.

The Tory loss of the Wirral by-election last week makes Major even more dependent on Trimble if he wishes to survive for a few more weeks in order to be able to name his preferred general election date. Trimble's glittering prize - the pompously named Northern Ireland Grand Commmittee at Westminster - was unveiled last week. But his more far-reaching success has been to ensure that Major does nothing to turn the flawed Stormont talks into real negotiations. Major has so far failed to give a positive response to Gerry Adams's Irish Times article of 22 February which sought to clarify the Sinn Féin position in a way which allowed space to the British government.

In the context of British government negativity and their playing of lobby politics with intransigent unionism, the comments of John Bruton on the issue of consent were particularly unhelpful. He wrongly accused republicans of advocating coercion of unionists; he then spuriously linked this with the demand for decommissioning. Thus a few days before the Stormont talks are suspended without a word of real negotiations over nine months, with decommissioning having totally dominated the proceedings, John Bruton gave unionists a further argument for delay.

Nonetheless, the primary responsibility for the failure of the talks lies with the British government. It is for the leadership of the British Labour Party now to assess this failure and learn lessons. Several times during the peace process, before the ending of the IRA cessation, they urged Major to move forward, pointing out that they had a bi-partisan approach and letting it be known that they would not bring down his government if the unionists tried to topple him over the peace process. Major, if he had the political will, could have built on this and consolidated the process. In the end it was clear that the issue of Ireland was never a high enough priority for him.

The task of republicans is to ensure that for Labour the issue is a much higher priority. That means republicans giving as much attention to the need for political engagement in Britian as they have in the United States. Such an engagement has been a missing link in the peace process; it is a question which needs to be explored in greater detail in the run up to the British general election.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
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