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4 June 1998 Edition

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British government must live up to commitments


Since the Good Friday Agreement the attitudes and approach of the British government on a number of issues have been of deep concern to nationalists. Of late there were signs that the British were acceding to unionist pressure to to renegotiate the Agreement on unionist terms.

This has been felt most keenly on the decommissioning issue. David Trimble in particular has been exerting considerable pressure on Blair to elevate the issue of decommissioning into a precondition whereby Sinn Fein would be excluded from taking its place in a Six County Executive without a surrender of IRA weapons. He has been receiving support for his position of late from William Hague's Tory Party.

In recent weeks unionist spokespersons have been parroting the rhetorical question ``Is the war over?''. It is fast becoming the stock unionist reply to questions of whether they will sit down with Sinn Féin in an Executive or as a variation on the theme of decomissioning as a precondition.

To maintain the fiction that Sinn Féin is merely an armed conspiracy as opposed to an open political party with a huge mandate among the nationalist population, unionist spokespersons continue to make no differentiation between the party and the IRA. However, to give the Unionists the benefit of the doubt and assume they really mean the IRA when they pose this question, their position remains entirely disingenuous.

The question of whether the war is over cannot be directed solely at one of the armed groups in the equation. Without an outright military victory by one side or the other, no one group could answer the question on its own. The reaction of each is naturally, and logically, entirely dependent on the attitude of others and the objective conditions.

Republicans have been working to achieve a situation where the war is ended for good. Only persistence and a good faith engagement by all the participants in the peace process can ensure that there is a maintenance of cessations by all armed groups. The achievement of a permanent peace settlement based on justice and democracy, which is Sinn Féin's primary objective, will mean in the clearest terms that the war is over.

Gerry Adams emerged from his meeting with Tony Blair on Tuesday in confident mood. Regarding unionist attempts to impose preconditions, using the decomissioning issue, Adams said that Blair had made clear that there could not and would not be any preconditions. On the same day David Trimble emerged from a similar meeting with Blair to give a different interpretation. Only time will tell if the British are as good as their word on this issue.

Decommissioning is not the only area where British government attitudes have been causing concern. Its behaviour on the issue of the RUC has already caused a rift with the Irish government. It appears that not a single name offered by the Irish side for the Commission for the Reform of Policing was accepted by the British who intended to present Dublin with a fait accomplit. Mo Mowlam was to announce the entire membership of the body while addressing the annual conference of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland in Newcastle, County Down. In the event Mowlam named three individuals at the Newcastle conference. Only after great pressure was a seventh name - Gerald Lynch, an Irish government nominee - added to the six-strong list on Wednesday. Among the nominees is Peter Smith QC, a friend of David Trimble's who stood as an Assembly candidate for the UUP in 1982. Hardly a choice to inspire nationalist confidence.

The venue for Mowlam's intended announcement - the Police Federation conference - underlines the continuing obsession of the British government with unionist concerns to the detriment of perceptions within the nationalist community. The exercise and its context seemed designed specifically to reassure the RUC that they have nothing to fear in that little will change for them. Considering that the abolition of the force is a prerequisite for progress from a nationalist point of view this was not a clever move.

A glimpse of the absolute resistance to change within unionism and specifically within the North's state security apparatus was available at the Newcastle conference. There was an interruption of Mo Mowlam's address and a walk-out by RUC man Gordon Thomas over the issue of the release of political prisoners. Speaking to reporters outside Thomas - who is stationed in nationalist West Belfast - admitted that most RUC officers had voted against the Belfast Agreement. Thomas was therefore clearly putting the RUC in the Paisley political camp.

To argue that such a force can have any future policing role is at this is at this stage flogging a dead horse. However, repeated statements by British government figures that the RUC will not be abolished is going down like a lead balloon within the nationalist community. When such statements are juxtaposed with the bahaviour of the RUC on the ground, for instance on Portadown's Garvaghy Road last weekend, one gets a feeling of the damage being done to perceptions of Tony Blair's intentions among nationalists.

Republicans have welcomed Tony Blair's fresh approach to Ireland, particularly when compared with the litany of disasters by his predecessors. But the continuance of a one-sided approach since Good Friday where the concerns of unionism are paramount is threatening to undo the good things which have been achieved in recent times. Mr Blair needs to appreciate the risks which Irish republicans have taken and the distance we have travelled in an effort to reach this point. Republicans have swallowed much, including things which were fought against tooth and nail until the last, including a Six County Assembly. Republicans accepted these things in an effort to move the situation forward and to maintain hope in the peace process. Yet at this stage unionists continue their refusal to sit down face-to-face and engage in dialogue with Sinn Féin.

Tony Blair needs to begin to understand the position of nationalists and republicans. If his government attempts at this stage to row back from its commitments to institute political change, disaster will result. Clear indications that this will not be allowed to occur are needed.

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