The differences have crystallised in the decommissioning issue which is now imposing ever-greater strains on the process and has developed into the most serious political problem encountered in the year since the IRA cessation of violence. While Britain holds that the ceasefire itself is not enough to start movement to all-party talks and that decommissioning of weaponry is necessary, the Dublin view is that it is unrealistic to expect any handover from the IRA.
The key underlying judgement here is how much confidence is to be placed in Gerry Adams and the republican leaders who engineered the ceasefire. Only last week the Taoiseach, John Bruton, a long-time opponent of the republicans, declared publicly that he trusted the leaders of Sinn Fein. No British minister is likely to make any such comment.
The British strategy has been to test the republican commitment to peace by pushing ever harder on the decommissioning issue and to maintain the process at a slow and cautious pace. Dublin, by contrast, had much more confidence in the republicans from the start: within days of the ceasefire the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, shook hands with Gerry Adams, and within weeks IRA prisoners were released from jails in the Republic.
Dublin has been surprised by the way London has increased and maintained the emphasis on decommissioning. A year ago an Irish source said privately that pushing de-commissioning would be a suitable tactic if the British wanted "to give them [the republicans] an exam they couldn't pass" but added that Dublin was fairly satisfied this was not London's game plan.
Sinn Fein sources also assumed the British stance would soften: some believed it already had until Sir Patrick Mayhew recently reiterated the formula he had laid down in the spring, stipulating that some arms had to be handed over. Recently at least some in Dublin thought London was seeking Irish help to get itself off the decommissioning hook. Only at this late stage is it emerging that the British regard it not as a hook but as an indispensable condition.
The British attitude has been partly fashioned from the convictions of ministers, and partly because the Government believes it should be reflecting Unionist concerns. There can be no round-table talks before de-commissioning starts, ministers argue, because Unionists simply would not go to them and that would retard rather than advance the peace process.
The fundamental point of difference between the governments lies in their view of how to treat Gerry Adams. London is for testing his commitment to peace; Dublin has no doubt of it. London want to push him; Dublin view him as the man who delivered the ceasefire, and believes he should be not pressurised but helped in his debates with sceptics in his movement. Mr Adams has repeatedly spoken of a crisis in the peace process and demanded all-party talks. Until the decommissioning issue is cleared up, in some ingenious way which has not yet been aired, such talks are impossible. The question then arises of whether the Adams ceasefire policy can withstand pressures inside his movement from those who say Britain is more concerned with disarming the IRA than doing serious business with Sinn Fein.
David McKittrickReuse content