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25 September 1997 Edition

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Green light for talks

Parties move to substantive issues

The all-party talks at Stormont took a vital step forward late on Wednesday night when the parties agreed to negotiate on the substantive issues.

Gerry Adams described it as ``an historic day'' and said: ``There is a heavy onus on all of the parties to now get down to the real and urgent business of making peace. We look forward to putting to the other participants our republican analysis and our vision for a New Ireland, united and democratic, and at peace. Our shared responsibility is to now make peace a reality.''


Breakthrough as unionists edge closer to reality


The latest breakthrough in the peace process came on Wednesday evening when both governments and all the parties including Sinn Fein voted at a plenary session at Stormont to move the talks process into substantive negotiations.

A procedural motion worked out after intensive discussions provided the mechanism to get the parties around the table for the first time on the `three-stranded' agenda next Monday 29 September. The parties went into a plenary session at 9.30pm on Wednesday. It had been postponed several times as agreement on the wording of the motion was sought in a series of consultations all that afternoon and evening.

While the motion provided the way forward to talks most of it focused on decommissioning. The wrangling was about unionists trying to rework the words of the two governments in their recent statement when they said they would ``like to see'' some decommissioning during talks. It was an attempt to retain decommissioning as a blockage within negotiations. Sinn Fein is opposed to that and therefore voted against that section of the motion on decommissioning.

At the plenary on Wednesday night Sinn Fein reiterated its view that the decommissioning obstacle should not be re-erected, that the removal of all guns from Irish politics is a clear objective of a lasting peace settlement. The issue of disarmament needs to be resolved but without blocking negotiations.

The issue of consent was also referred to in the motion and Sinn Fein said that they wanted to see a settlement that seeks and wins the consent of all sections of the Irish people. Sinn Fein said consent needs to be put in an all-Ireland context which means bringing about a radical transformation of the situation by ending partition and British jurisdiction. The nationalist parties at the talks agree that an internal settlement is not a solution.

A couple of hours before the breakthrough came, Ken Maginnis, without a hint of irony, told Channel 4 News of his exasperation at those whom he said were trying to hold up progress to substantive negotiations and to place obstacles in the way of real talks.

This was the day after he delivered a sham `indictment' of Sinn Fein on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, knowing they would not succeed in getting Sinn Fein thrown out. More to the point it was after months and years of unionist delays and stalling as they wrecked the first peace process and as they have been attempting to reduce the present process to a snail's pace. It came 16 months after the elections of May 1996 which were supposed to lead to talks.

But this week the unionists ran out of options to stall the commencement of negotiations. On Tuesday 23 September David Trimble led the Ulster Unionist Party into the negotiating chamber to share the table for the first time with Sinn Fein. It was a welcome development, despite the farce which ensued.

Ken Maginnis delivered the six-page `indictment'. Its central contention was that Sinn Fein is the IRA and both governments and the other parties were wrong to allow ``unreconstructed murderers'' to the ``table of democracy''. There was of course no reference to the electoral mandate which makes Sinn Fein the third largest party in the Six Counties, bigger than Trimble's fellow unionists in the DUP who are boycotting the talks. The UUP `indictment' quoted sundry British government, Irish government and SDLP criticisms of Sinn Fein. There was also an attempt to put in a wedge between SDLP leader John Hume and his deputy Seamus Mallon who, Maginnis said had ``a more realistic and consistent view of IRA/Sinn Fein''. But the other participants weren't interested. With remarkable unanimity they all said that it was now time to look forward not back.

The content of the UUP `indictment' meant little. It was the context which mattered. And the context was one of unreality. The UUP delegation knew before they even composed their statement that their motion for the removal of Sinn Fein from the talks would be rejected. Knowing this they saw no point in hanging around to hear a response from Sinn Fein or any of the other participants so they walked out of the negotiating chamber once the statement had been made. Would they be back? Trimble had a new spin on this when he emerged on Tuesday afternoon. They would return and they would negotiate - but with everybody except Sinn Fein.

They returned on Wednesday but this time the drama had to be set aside as hard bargaining began behind closed doors. If substantive talks go ahead next Monday 29 September, as now seems virtually certain, it will represent a coming to terms with reality by unionists. Now that they have set aside play-acting, at least for the time being, the unionists must face the task of leading their section of the Irish people in negotiations. Of course they still have the option of wrecking the search for agreement from within the talks. If they persist in trying to freeze out Sinn Fein completely this is the effect they would have. But they would be failing their own people as well as everyone else if they again destroyed this opportunity for a lasting peace settlement. Both governments have a responsiblity to ensure that such a scenario does not come about.


The siege of Stormont

Brian Campbell was among the press at Stormont when the Unionists sat down with Sinn Féin for the first time
``Did you shake hands with Mr Trimble?'' asked a foreign journalist. ``No, but I would have. I have abnormally long arms,'' Gerry Adams replied.
As the participants in Tuesday's talks drove out of Castle Buildings past the colonial splendour of Stormont they would have noticed a placard under the statue of Carson, the founder of modern Unionism and the Six County state. It read: ``David Trimble, Northern Ireland's de Klerk: A Traitor''.
And judging from Trimble's behaviour as he faced the press after his `showdown' with Sinn Féin, he is all too aware of the rising cries of `sell-out' from inside and outside his own ranks.

While all other talks participants exuded calmness as they joked and bantered with the press, Trimble's body language betrayed a man under tremendous pressure. His clipped, mincing stride, his clenched jaw and his jerky hand movements verge on the comical. But they show a man boiling with anger and frustration.

On Tuesday he ended his press conference in abrupt fashion when he refused to take a question from Downtown Radio journalist Eamon Mallie.

Significantly, Trimble and the Ulster Unionists did not go to Stormont on Tuesday with the representatives of the loyalist death squads, the UDP and PUP. They walked in with them last week but it caused such a furore among Unionist supporters that the UUP dared not repeat it. It was yet another debacle in a Unionist strategy which seems not to look more than a couple of days ahead.

There was a general feeling that Tuesday was about going through the motions. The Unionists arrived, refused to talk to the press, presented their `indictment' of Sinn Féin, gave a truncated press conference and went home. No-one believed they would succeed in having Sinn Féin thrown out of the talks and it was clear that the Unionists themselves knew it was a hopeless pursuit.

But even as a media stunt, it was all rather lame and embarrassing. The press were bored. They knew Wednesday was the big day and, like everyone else, they wanted the Unionists to begin the real business.

Trimble's performance apart, this historic day was relaxed and uncontroversial. The media are camped outside the gates of the talks building and they are developing their own siege mentality, fated to spend long winter months living off the scraps thrown to them by wary politicians. There are better jobs.


Tension before the footlights

By our drama critic
The David Trimble Amateur Dramatic Society staged a lavish production at the Stormont Castle Buildings auditorium on Tuesday. David Trimble relinquished the main role in the drama to his leading man Ken Maginnis who gave a tour-de-force performance as the Chief Prosecutor in the Trial of Sinn Féin, the latest play from the talented team of writers at Glengall Street.

While Maginnis took the honours at the front of the stage, Trimble's dramatic entrances and exits at the head of the Greek chorus of unionism framed the entire production. Maginnis's delivery was measured and menacing throughout, in contrast to the violent mood changes of his leader who scattered party colleagues and media people in his wake.

"Sinn Féin is a monstrous deceit condemned out of the mouths of virtually every other party here," was delivered by Maginnis with maximum emphasis. The chilling word "Godfathers" was flung in the direction of Sinn Féin and rang through the auditorium.

The ghost of John Bruton was summoned to make the Irish government delegation blush as Maginnis repeated the Lost Leader's words of condemnation of Sinn Féin. Yet the nationalist members of the audience remained strangely unmoved, some even nonchalantly thumbed the supplied script to see how much of the soliloquy was left. It was a display of bad manners which this critic hopes he never sees again.

But the Tyrone thespian's performance of the great speech was not the end of the show. In a masterful touch worthy of Beckett the writers had contrived the climax of the drama in this way - having held the stage in the presence of the entire cast, the main character abruptly departed before they could respond. In this play there was no dialogue.


A place to do business

Councillor Sue Ramsey, one of the Sinn Féin support team at Stormont, describes the atmosphere inside the talks building

The standard office block in which the all-party talks are held at Stormont could not be described as fitting architecture for making history. Everything tries hard to be mundane: the bored security men, the chain-link fence at which cameramen (they are all men) gather like visitors to the zoo, and the standard office furniture and fittings give it the appearance of an outpost of a secretive multinational. But once inside, mundane turns to business-like.

The ten parties, two governments and the chairmen all have offices. As you walk through the building's maze of corridors - yesterday Jim Gibney was still getting lost on his way to the canteen - an air of busy preparation pervades the place.

It is this workmanlike atmosphere which will cause difficulties and embarrassment for the Unionists and Loyalists as they try to stick to their tactic of having absolutely no contact with Sinn Féin. In the constant traffic to and from shared canteen and toilet facilities, not to mention in meetings and committees their stance will be exposed as childish nonsense. We've seen it in councils all over the Six Counties where Unionists first welcomed Sinn Féin councillors with whistles, horns and assorted rudeness but now work with them with only occasional fuss.

Sinn Féin, for our part, are in these talks with a scrupulously business-like approach. It is satisfying to see how quickly the team of negotiators and their support staff have settled into the job. Computer terminals, faxes and photocopiers buzz constantly in one office while across the corridor meetings and conferences convene and break up at regular intervals through the day.

Of course the real work will happen elsewhere in the building as the talks and the bilaterals get underway. And it is comforting to know that the carpets and furniture in the conference chamber are mauve - a colour specially selected, we're told, to create a mood of calm. But no-one's betting it will work when Sinn Féin goes in flying their brightest colours.


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