Creative fudge that loosens Ulster logjam

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tuesday's late-night Anglo-Irish summit and subsequent communique may go down in diplomatic history as an object lesson in how to make a fair number of bricks when faced with a distinct lack of straw.

The two governments were at an impasse on the crucial question of decommissioning. London said some arms must be decommissioned before substantive negotiations could begin; Dublin's view was that this pre-condition was in danger of testing Gerry Adams and the republican movement to the point of destruction.

A summit scheduled for September had been postponedamid some acrimony, and ever since neither side showed any side of budging. There have been more and more reports that the IRA might abandon the process and return to terrorism.

Tuesday's communique has been dismissed as a fudge, but there is a case to be made that it was an ingenious and creative means of facing up to the basic disagreement and making the most of it. Some aspects of it are hard for Sinn Fein to swallow, but there is enough in it to make a resort to violence in the immediate future all but inconceivable.

It is difficult to judge just how real was the risk of a return to violence. Frustration and anger are certainly evident in the republican camp, but this did not make a return to violence inevitable. Republican strategists are aware that even one bomb would destroy all the relationships they have painstakingly built up with important political elements in Ireland and the US. The fact is that Sinn Fein has little choice but to accept the communique as the basis for the next phase of the peace process. They are not in a position to stay out of talks; and they are not in a position to boycott an international body on arms decommissioning.

Furthermore, the preparatory talks about talks give the appearance of being a serious exercise rather than the type of desultory encounters often seen in the past. With the commission they will be able to raise any matters they wish. They can be expected to make the case that security force weapons should be taken into account, as well as illegally held guns, and to argue that the British government's stand on decommissioning is unreasonable.

Of critical importance to the republicans is the fact that the Taoiseach, John Bruton, did not break with them on the decommissioning issue and endorse the British position. Sinn Fein had been worried that he might abandon them in favour of strengthening his relations with Mr Major and the Unionists.

On the Unionist side, the communique will pose a dilemma for David Trimble, the recently elected Ulster Unionist party leader. Mr Trimble has had a well-received honeymoon period, winning widespread approval for his willingness to meet a wide range of political leaders, including Mr Bruton.

The communique contains a nod in his direction by including his suggestion that an elected body could play a part in negotiations. He now faces the choice of proceeding on the basis of the communique, thus extending his honeymoon period, or of a retreat to the laager.

That laager is already occupied by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which has pledged itself not to take part in talks while the IRA remains in existence. The achievement of the communique is to apply such pressures, on both republicans and Unionists, on the basis not of agreement between the governments but of disagreement. The weakness is that it has not resolved the decommissioning issue: that still lies ahead, and still retains the capacity to derail the entire process.

In the meantime, however, it has established a breathing-space. Perhaps the most significant point in the communique may yet turn out to be the sentence which says that preparatory talks could cover the decommissioning issue. This throws the issue open for all parties to make an input - something which could either solidify the logjam or loosen it.