How long can Blair wait for Sinn Fein?

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The Independent Online
The face, contorted with uncontrollable grief, of seven-year- old Louie Johnston, son of one of the two RUC men shot dead by the IRA in Lurgan, will be one of the enduring images of 1997. It moved Tony Blair, and the deep anger that it generated in Downing Street and around the world will underline a good deal of what he says when he makes a statement on Northern Ireland in the Commons tomorrow. Blair is unlikely to mince his words about the gruesome cynicism of murdering the two policemen only 48 hours after republicans had been promised they could join all-party talks within six weeks if the IRA declared a ceasefire.

A moment of truth is fast approaching for the Provisionals. If they commit this atrocity in the midst of a detailed negotiating process about the terms needed to bring Sinn Fein into inclusive, all-party talks, what is the point of talking to them? For it suggests one of two deeply unpalatable possibilities: either that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness have been guilty of mind-boggling hypocrisy in their negotiations with officials at the Northern Ireland Office, or that they are not in control of their own people. Either way it raises distinct doubts as to whether there is any point in the Government trying to bring them into talks.

Some of those doubts will surely be reflected in what the Prime Minister says tomorrow. He is after all, entitled to emphasise how the murders took place at a time when he had taken significant risks to secure a ceasefire. He had already abandoned the requirement, successfully pressed on his predecessor by the Ulster Unionists and consistently rejected by Sinn Fein, that there would have to be a symbolic hand-over of arms before inclusive talks could start.

Yesterday London and Dublin agreed a joint decommissioning paper, several weeks in the drafting, to be issued to the inter-party talks in Belfast today. There has been a broad measure of agreement between London and the incoming government in Dublin in favour of the recommendations of Senator George Mitchell that decommissioning should start happening only as the talks make progress. The Government has a huge majority, and is not, therefore, as the previous one was, held parliamentary prisoner by the Ulster Unionists. It is in a honeymoon period. It has a leader who has striven for a new start, as McGuiness acknowledged on Sunday. When are the republicans going to have an opportunity like this again?

If the IRA doesn't think (and it may not) that that's a real question, it should think again. For it's becoming clearer by the day that Blair and Mo Mowlam, his Northern Ireland Secretary, are serious when they say that if talks can't be held which include Sinn Fein, then the Government will switch its energy to promoting talks that don't. Blair and Dr Mowlam want a ceasefire. But they aren't, in the end, going to be deterred from trying to get the best out of the only alternative: talks between the existing constitutional parties.

True, there is deep and justified scepticism among the best informed in Northern Ireland about whether talks without Sinn Fein would be, in the phrase of Fergus Finlay, adviser to the outgoing Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, "worth a penny candle". On an optimistic scenario, John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, would come together and agree terms for a new, power- sharing Northern Ireland assembly, along with some version of the institutional cross-border co-operation envisaged in the widely forgotten 1995 Framework Document.

Dublin would abandon the claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland in Article II of the Irish constitution. The deal would be put successfully to referendums in both north and south next May. And the IRA would find itself not only militarily at bay, but with less public support than at any time since the Troubles began. In your dreams, say the sceptics.

A conflagration after Drumcree in a fortnight's time would simply reinforce the hatreds between nationalists and Unionists rekindled by the one last year. Even without it, Hume would have to detach himself from his five- year quest to bring Sinn Fein into talks; and Trimble would have to take the bold step of facing down extreme Unionist opinion (in the rival DUP and in his own party) by conceding even the modest ground he has stubbornly refused to concede so far. And the DUP itself would have to be ignored. There are signs that some within the SDLP, including the deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, are less determined on having Sinn Fein in the talks than Hume himself. But the obstacles remain daunting.

The scepticism is quite widely shared in government. But Blair is still likely to make it clear that there is a limit to his patience with Sinn Fein, not least the widespread revulsion over Lurgan throughout Ireland. But the most important reason is the new relationship with President Clinton, further cemented at Denver at the weekend. Clinton has gone out of his way to use similar language to the Prime Minister in the wake of the Lurgan murders. This can only educate US opinion. The emptiness, for example, of the obscene parallel beloved of Sinn Fein leaders, between the IRA and the ANC in apartheid South Africa, has never been understood as well as now. There has probably never been a better chance that Clinton would back Blair, and, more important, still help to persuade the new government in Dublin to back Blair, if he decided there were no further point in trying to entice Sinn-Fein/IRA into talks.

The immediate crisis facing Northern Ireland is the marching season, and the threat of disorder, on the scale of last year's, arising from Drumcree on 6 July. Dr Mowlam has justly won plaudits on both sides of the border for her heroic efforts to secure a local agreement to prevent that happening. But she has an uphill struggle on her hands. Any new effort at kick-starting fresh negotiations will no doubt now have to wait until September. So this may provide Sinn Fein with another opportunity. The new Prime Minister has bent over backwards to bring them in. But he will not bend for ever.