3 April 1997 Edition

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Labour must talk to Sinn Féin

The two most significant events in the Six Counties during the past week both relate to the unwillingness of unionists to talk to their neighbours. The Orange Order seems to be on the verge of a split because the Spirit of Drumcree group are determined to stop all dialogue on the issue of marches. Mo Mowlam's remarks on the entry of Sinn Féin into talks on 3 June have been greeted with threats from unionists to withdraw if Sinn Féin is present.

Both developments expose the real reason for the disruption of the peace process - the refusal of the unionist leadership to commit themselves fully to negotiations and the backing that refusal has been given by the British government. But both developments also point to the possibility and potential for change within unionism and in British government policy.

The Spirit of Drumcree is also the Spirit of Harryville where a loyalist mob is still taunting Mass-goers with sectarian abuse every week. It is the Spirit of Dunloy where 400 extremist Orangemen on 27 March broke up a meeting between their own County Antrim leaders and representatives of nationalists. That meeting had worked out a compromise where a limited number of Orange parades would be allowed through the predominantly nationalist town. Similar reactions from the extremes of loyalism greeted the decision of the Apprentice Boys not to march onto Ormeau Bridge at the weekend.

The news that action against the Order within the Order - the Spirit of Drumcree group - is now being taken by the leadership is very significant. It could herald the most serious split in the Orange Order since the formation of the Independent Orange Order at the start of the century. It shows that significant and influential sections of Orangeism recognise the unsustainability of the argument that they will never talk to residents about the relatively few contested routes of the thousands of Orange parades held annually.

It may represent a small sign of progress. But here as elsewhere the role of the British government is crucial. Entirely the wrong signal was sent to the hardline Orangemen in the lukewarm reception of the British government for the recommendations of the North Report on parades. Once again intransigence was rewarded.
Both the British Labour Party and the Dublin government should be leading by example.

In this context the Radio Ulster comments of Labour Shadow Secretary of State Mo Mowlam were welcome. Interviewed on Saturday 29 March she said that Sinn Féin could be in talks at their resumption on 3 June if an IRA ceasefire was declared. She said that if an IRA ceasefire was called now and if Sinn Féin in April and May showed ``by word and deed their commitment to the democratic process'' it would be ``very difficult'' for an incoming government not to consider the scenario of immediate Sinn Féin entry on 3 June.

The DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson and the UUP deputy leader John Taylor threatened to pull their parties out of talks if such a scenario came about. This threat has hung over the peace process at all stages. Encouraged by the British government the unionist tactic of threatened withdrawal kept all parties away from the talks table for the 18 months of the IRA ceasefire. Everything the British government did - especially the decommissioning ploy - encouraged this denial of dialogue.

But like the Orange Order refusal to talk to residents, the unionist refusal to talk to the representatives of 43% of nationalists is an unsustainable position. As Gerry Adams pointed out in his response to Mowlam, unionists for years refused to sit in council chambers with Sinn Féin. That too had been encouraged by the British who had introduced electoral laws designed to keep Sinn Féin out. Outgoing Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Mairtín O Muilleoir last week recalled the antics that greeted the arrival of himself and his colleagues in City Hall over a decade ago, with unionists making fools of themselves blowing horns and banging drums. But because their people demand representation such tactics could not last. So it will be also with the issue of all-party talks.

Both the British Labour Party and the Dublin government should be leading by example. Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam should be building on the latter's constructive comments by recommencing dialogue with representatives of Sinn Féin. The renewal of ministerial contact with Sinn Féin by the Dublin government would encourage this. And it is not a question of `concessions' or `rewards' to Sinn Féin, as is so often erroneously portrayed by political commentators. It is a question of the rights of the people Sinn Féin represents.

In his response to Mo Mowlam Gerry Adams said:

``What has to be clear is that if the IRA stopped on such a date, that Sinn Féin should be involved in talks and we would like to see that immediately... It is also clear that this decommissioning nonsense has been used to prevent negotiations from commencing and then to prevent them from making any progress.''

Also needed is ``a definitive timefame as Taoiseach John Bruton has recognised'' as well as confidence-building measures by the British government. ``I will go to the IRA when I think I can succeed. I have nothing today to go to the IRA with but Mo Mowlam's remarks are encouraging,'' said Adams.

All this could be developed through face to face negotiations between Labour and Sinn Féin. A courageous step by Labour now could create real progress. It will be argued that the Tories would pounce on such an initiative to inflict electoral damage to Labour. (Patrick Mayhew's criticism of Mowlam echoed earlier attacks on Labour on the Irish issue by Michael Howard.) But as articulated most eloquently by the parents of the British soldier Stephen Restorick who was killed in South Armagh last month, the overwhelming view among the British public is for dialogue to resolve the conflict. Proceeding on that basis Labour could revive the peace process.

Past experience of Labour may make many people cynical but the democratic demand for dialogue must be raised. Sooner or later the next British government, like the unionists, will have to sit down again and talk to Sinn Féin.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1