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5 March 1998 Edition

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Process needs credibility

British government must realise that nothing will ever be the same again

By Marcas Mac Ruairí

THE sectarian murders in Poyntzpass on Tuesday night should act as a spur to those taking part in the peace talks to take seriously the efforts to find a settlement.

The random nature of the attack displays what nationalists in the Six Counties have been expected to accept since partition was imposed. From the outset the statelet was fortressed with a sectarian ideology of blind hatred of Catholicism and the self-denial of anything pertaining to the rest of Ireland.

It is this background from which loyalist death squads find sustenance and to the same background that the nationalist community waits for the British government to invest the talks with some form of credibility.

As those same talks move rapidly towards a conclusion in late March or early April, the shortcomings of the process were highlighted in recent weeks when the RUC were able to engineer the expulsion of Sinn Féin, the very party which is most critical of it.

The militarists and securocrats within the British establishment cannot be allowed to influence the political drive towards a peace settlement. They have an obvious vested interest in maintaining the status quo and the continuation of conflict.

But the fear being quietly expressed around kitchen tables and over drinks between friends is that the British have already decided on their chosen solution.

People on the ground believe that the British do not want to see dynamic all-Ireland bodies with executive powers but rather want an essentially internal settlement along the lines advocated by David Trimble, a settlement which would need the acquiescence of the SDLP and involve driving a wedge between that party and Sinn Féin.

Not only does this fall short of what a confident Irish nationalism will accept, but given the nature of unionism such a move would have disastrous implications for the future.

The confidence crisis in the broader nationalist community created by the expulsion of Sinn Féin has not yet been addressed by the British and a question mark remains over the whole validity of the process.

There is an onus on the British government to urgently take steps which will turn the current situation around. It must show that the process has the potential to deliver real and qualitative change. It is only by taking such steps that the process can be shown to be viable.

And as the clock ticks away, an early meeting between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair would have obvious value in helping to create a healthy backdrop to inclusiveness and dialogue.

Sinn Féin remains committed to its peace project and to a negotiated settlement. And likewise, as the time runs out before a close to the talks, the need for nationalist unity is greater than ever.

Failing an agreement and sufficient consensus among the parties, the governments have indicated that they will put their own proposals to a referendum throughout Ireland in May. Much of the legislation surrounding this has already been prepared.

David Trimble and the unionists will try to hold back the tide of progress for as long as possible. They will try to veto any mechanism for change and any substance being given to all-Ireland institutions.

But there can be no going back and the British themselves must face up to the fact that nothing will ever be the same again. A workable settlement must transcend all the failed models which have been tried in the past. Tinkering with none of those models will suffice. What is required is dynamic all-Ireland institutions with real powers.

The task facing the leaders of Irish nationalism is to maximise that change and it is only through a united voice that they will be able to deliver.

Both the Fianna Fáil led Irish government and the SDLP should be sounding out and taking on board the opinions of their grassroots. The message they will hear is that Sinn Féin should never have been put out of the talks and that they should now be standing with Sinn Féin in order to maximise change.

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