18 September 1997 Edition
Ready for real talks
This week, despite all the posturing of David Trimble and his loyalist allies, the momentum of the peace process drove the UUP, UDP and PUP into Stormont. Behind that momentum was the popular desire of those parties' own constituents to see all-party talks. The stage is now set. Give or take more antics from Trimble and Co, there will soon be face-to-face negotiations. It has truly been an historic week.
Sinn Féin took their place at the talks table on Monday. They are there because of their electoral mandate. They are there as of right and they are ready to put the republican position.
``We are here to try and make peace''
Mary Maguire was at Castle grounds last Monday for the first day of an historic process aimed at bringing lasting peace to the island.
As the Sinn Féin delegation headed by Gerry Adams walked through the gates at Stormont Castle grounds on Monday 15 September, seventy five years of history faded. For the first time since partition, Sinn Féin was at a talks table around which all parties were to discuss how peace could be brought to Ireland.
Hundreds of cameramen, photographers and journalists had been waiting for the arrival of the party that so long had been excluded from the multi-party talks. The excitement that surrounded their arrival was frantic.
As the delegation walked slowly swarms of photographers and cameramen strove to catch a picture of the historic moment. Among the Irish and British journalists mingled Argentinian, Greek, French, Basque, Swedish, Arabic and Australian reporters.
``We are here as an Irish Republican party. We do think that this could be the beginning of the end of conflict on this island if there is a political will. We, in Sinn Fein, certainly do have that will''. It was with these words that an upbeat Gerry Adams started to address the biggest press conference in weeks.
Gerry Adams emphasised the goals and the position Sinn Fein would take in the course of the talks. ``We want to see an end to British jurisdiction on this island''. Talking of the expectations of the people, he stressed that he would defend ``the unity and independence of Ireland and all the people of the island''.
If the speech was positive and full of hope, Gerry Adams did not forget the difficult reality of his people. He drew attention to the fact that the British Army was still on active service in West Belfast, South Armagh and the other places throughout the North. He reminded the press of loyalist shootings, and ``the number of people killed by loyalists and the British Army''. He re-emphasised his desire to ``not look at the past. If people want to play games, we don't. We want to move into substantive negotiations and on issues that can remove conflict. We should have been here long ago. So, today is the chance''.
He also reminded the media whose focus was on the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, that it was loyalists who, this week-end, made a show of strength. Two days before talks were to start, four armed and masked UVF members paraded along the Shankill Road. Once again he saluted the courage of the IRA who have declared and are standing by a ceasefire.
As they walked through the tall gates and into the brown marble and glass building where the talks were to kick off, a number of problems still lay ahead. Gerry Adams summed up the mixed feelings of excitement, uncertainty and determination by saying ``we look forward to the challenges of this process. The hours, days and weeks lying ahead are historic ones''.
Play-acting or talking?
Mícheál MacDonncha argues that Trimble has two choices - wreck the talks or engage in them
The long and tortuous journey of Sinn Féin to the talks table finally ended on Monday 15 September at Stormont Castle Buildings. It was a momentous and historic day but this aspect of it is likely to be more apparent in hindsight than at present because the event has been overshadowed by the manouverings of David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party.
Trimble was the centre of attention for the past few weeks as he faced the decision on whether to stay in the process once Sinn Féin came in on 9 September to affrim the Mitchell Principles and then on 15 September to attend the plenary where substantive talks were due to begin. Decision day was Saturday 13 September when the 110-member Executive Committee of the UUP met in Belfast. Little detail of what was said at that meeting emereged but two decisions were made: Trimble would stay in the process; the tactical approach to attendance at the actual talks would be left to him. This seemed to give Trimble maximum flexibility and in the ensuing days he used it to the full.
On Friday Dublin Foreign Minister Ray Burke had warned Trimble that he faced being by-passed by his people if he failed to engage. British Primie Minsiter Tony Blair also urged Trimble to lead his party into the talks. That same day Trimble demanded that the British government get an assurance from Sinn Fein that there would be decommissioning during talks. Otherwise there would have to be ``sanctions'' on Sinn Féin. Thus even before the executive made its decision it was clear that Trimble intended to stay in in order to put Sinn Féin out.
``Let's wait and see'' was how Trimble responded when asked after Saturday's meeting if he would be face to face with Sinn Féin. It had been a ``premature decision'' to let Sinn Féin in. The UUP would stay in the talks to ``ensure, one way or another, that the unionist voice is heard and that the Union is defended.'' And that morning in the Newsletter Tony Blair played another hand in that perpetual game called Reassuring the Unionists. ``I value the Union and Northern Ireland's place within it'' he wrote. While unionists were demanding Sinn Féin expulsion from talks the UVF mounted a display by men armed with AK47s on the Shankill Road. Nobody called for the UVF-linked PUP to be expelled.
On Monday 15 September, the day Sinn Féin took its place at the negotiating table, all the unionist parties stayed away. For its part Sinn Féin made clear that it was there as a republican party, putting the demand for Irish unity and independence on the table. The party was questioned on the IRA interview in last week's An Phoblacht. Sinn Féin pointed out that they were not the IRA and were present on the basis of their democratic mandate, as were the other parties present. Mo Mowlam and Ray Burke said they were satisfied with Sinn Féin's answers. Mowlam said they were ``full and comprehensive... the nature of the debate was acceptable to everybody''.
Present at the talks session on 15 September were the two governments, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, and the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
Gerry Adams said Sinn Féin was prepared to allow time and space for unionists to get into talks but if they didn't come the onus was on the two governments to move on.
There was more Reassuring the Unionists on Monday morning when the two governments issued a statement saying that the resolution of the decommissioning issue was ``indispensible'' and they would ``like to see'' some decommissioning during talks. This was seized upon by the unionists who repeated their demand for decommissioning during talks as a precondition to progress.
While the UUP, PUP and UDP met talks chairperson George Mitchell, the DUP's demand for Sinn Féin expulsion was ruled out at the plenary because the proposers were not in attendance.
On Tuesday morning the mysterious Markethill explosion took place and Trimble demanded a ``security response'' and again called for Sinn Féin expulsion. ``What we are doing here is worth a million condemnations'' commented Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly at Stormont. He said the bombing was ``regrettable and disappointing''. Alliance called on unionists to ``stop play acting''.
The Women's Coalition representative Monica McWilliams said: ``The potential to create a permamant peace in Northern Ireland is more important than debating the politics of the last atrocity.''
Then having postured for four days Trimble finally led the massed ranks of the UUP, the UDP and PUP into Stormont Castle Buildings on Wednesday morning. He said they were there not to negotiate with Sinn Féin but to confront them. He would choose ``the time and the place'' to do it. He ranted about Sinn Féin's ``fascist nature''. The irony of this statement was glaring. Trimble himself was a member of the quasi-fascist Vanguard movement in the 1970s along with loyalist paramilitary groups whose representatives flanked him as he walked in.
Of course all of those parties, like Sinn Féin, are present because of the electoral mandate they received. And the mandate of Sinn Féin which Trimble dismissed on Wednesday as ``bit-players'' in the talks, is the third largest in the Six Counties.
Nonetheless Trimble has entered the campus of negotiations and that is some degree of progress. If he persists in ``confronting'' Sinn Féin and ruling out negotiation with the party then he is clearly out to wreck the process. That process exists solely to allow negotiation. Play-acting can only last so long before being exposed as Trimble learned this week.