Dear Tony Blair

It's about time the Labour leader stopped dodging questions on Ulster, says one of Ireland's leading writers
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The Independent Online
In a year of vertiginous activity since being elected leader of the Labour Party, you have been credited with making a rapprochement with several sections of the nation, shown an olive branch to the public schools and caused jitters in the Conservative Party by your appeals to the business world; but you have been studiously, if not to say virginally, reticent about Ireland. I wonder why.

You say that you support John Major in all that he is doing, but you must surely be concerned about the stasis in the peace process, the Government's hesitancy on the question of prisoners' remission and a backtrack on the transfer of Irish prisoners from the mainland. It is, of course, impossible for the Government - short of reincarnating into lemmings - to do anything radical, depending as it does on the votes of the Ulster Unionists, and this is a consideration which must loom large in the recesses of your own political ambition.

To even the simplest minds there is an ambiguity in the framework document, stating that England no longer has political or strategic interest in remaining in Ireland and yet assuring the Protestant community that it will not be coerced into a united Ireland. To reconcile these two considerations to people of opposing ideology is the crux of the matter, allowing for hope or dread on either side. Your stance has been one of compliance with the Government and a side-stepping when a vital question was put to you on the eve of your recent visit to Ireland. Repulsive (as opposed to controversial) issues are not a politician's bonanza but sometimes the confrontation of them has surprising results.

Take the case of Colin Powell. The Republican Party in the United States has been strenuously and lethally opposed to abortion rights and equally adamant about restrictions on gun ownership, yet General Powell, when launching his book A Soldier's Way, said that he opposed the Republican Party on both of these policies, and far from negating his standing as a putative President, he is now said to enjoy the same popularity as President Clinton.

You know that the intransigence of the Unionist Party is the great bulwark against change - the idea of cross-border institutions, mixed policing, Southern Ireland's link in a Northern assembly, is anathema to them. Yet one day these realities will have to be met, regardless of knife-edge dependence on Unionist votes to keep a British government afloat. In a poll conducted in Ulster a few weeks ago among Catholics and Protestants, 67 per cent of the people said they wished for all-party talks to begin.

Now David Trimble, the new leader of the Ulster Unionists, has no such aspirations. He would like the North to remain in the Union in perpetuity. He has not even made a promise that his party will engage in talks after the decommissioning of arms, and has stressed that there will be "other requirements".

During the Orange marches in Portadown when there was a confrontation between the RUC and the Loyalist marchers, Mr Trimble cried wolf and told the world and the television cameras that the IRA had rearmed and was coming up the hill. Such intemperance might be effective in a Boy's Own film, but less than salutary in the tense milieu of sectarian uncertainty. He has, as you know, called for the election of a Free Assembly, the result of which is already forseeable and the reality of which would be to bring things right back to the situation before the Downing Street Declaration; in short, to internalise the settlement of Ulster and ditch the three- stranded talks.

When in Ireland recently, you said that you would not meet Gerry Adams. As one of the instigators with John Hume of a document which even Ian Paisley conceded was "the womb from which the rotten Downing Street Declaration was born", surely Mr Adams has a relevant place in the political caucus? Is ostracisation your recipe?

You may personally dislike him and you may, like many of your predecessors in the Labour Party, have a distaste for Irish Republicanism, but to have met Mr Adams would have been a sign of strength rather than weakness and could hardly have damaged the peace process. It might even have put a little enthusiasm back into it.

The Irish question has never been a palatable one for English sensibilities. How could it? The wounds cut too deep. The arbitrary division of the country, without the consent of the majority, the subsequent penalisation of Catholics, laid the scene for dormant, then sporadic, then all-out violence.

Now we have a situation where in a self-congratulatory article in the New York Times recently Sir Patrick Mayhew says Britain wants to end the killing but asks if Sinn Fein does. The tenor of his piece suggests that Sinn Fein/IRA is the cause of the trouble, allowing himself deliberate amnesia by omitting the murders by Loyalist paramilitaries, the killing of civilians by the SAS, the partisanship of the RUC and the sombre fact that as many Catholics as Protestants have died in the past 25 years. Of course it is not in anyone's interest to start recounting and recataloguing the carnage. It is imperative that leaders and opposition leaders declare their hand.

According to the Joint Declaration, if the Unionists do not reach agreement after all-party talks, it becomes the responsibility of the two sovereign governments of Ireland and Britain to implement the proposals in the framework for a peace equation. This was the question you were asked and which you omitted to answer on your late summer tour of Ireland. Your response is long overdue and of vital interest to all and, in particular, to the many Irish people in this country who have been stalwart Labour voters.

To demur would be to seem as if you were playing Pontius Pilate in the wings.

EDNA O'BRIEN

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