Election ;97: The challenges facing Britain's new Labour government

IRA dangles prospect of ceasefire
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The Independent Online
In Northern Ireland Labour will continue to face the usual strands of the Irish question, but in the immediate aftermath of the election one issue will eclipse all others: whether or not a genuine peace process can be reconstructed.

This means a major feature of the next few weeks may be a process of exploration as the government on the one hand, and Sinn Fein and the IRA on the other, size each other up and decide whether business can be done together.

The central question is whether a second IRA cessation of violence might be in the offing. Labour's position, in common with that of the Conservatives, has been that ministers will not talk to Sinn Fein until an IRA ceasefire is in place.

The primary republican pre-condition for a new ceasefire is a cast-iron, publicly announced, government assurance that such a move would guarantee Sinn Fein entry into the adjourned multi-party talks. Clearly, to fulfil this would entail some element of communication between the Government and the republicans.

The political talks are due to resume on 3 June. During the election campaign, Dr Mo Mowlam, as shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, made an overture to republicans with a public suggestion that an immediate cessation at that point might lead to an entry into talks in June.

For their part, republican sources say they do not regard 3 June as an important deadline, and do not expect any agreement with the Government to have been reached by then. It was, in any event, made clear by Labour, as IRA disruption tactics continued in Britain during the campaign, that the specific offer ought to be regarded as null and void.

But the fact it was made appears to suggest that in office Labour would actively pursue a similar course. This would dovetail, in principle at least, with Sinn Fein's expectations: Martin McGuinness has repeatedly said he expects another peace process following the same template as the last.

However, while the approaches may be similar in principle, the particulars involved are not only vital but highly problematical. They include questions such as arms de-commissioning and how any new cessation could be verified as genuine. The magnitude of these difficulties suggests they will take time to overcome.

Apart from the problems themselves, a number of potentially disruptive, or at least distracting events lie ahead in the immediate calendar.

For one thing, another election looms in Northern Ireland with all of its 26 local councils to be re-elected on 21 March. A general election is also in the offing in the Irish Republic, with polling likely to take place in next month.

And while Labour explores the possibility of bringing about a new IRA ceasefire, it cannot afford to ignore the question of its relationship with the Protestant and Unionist community.

Over the past year the pivotal parliamentary position of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party led to a series of concessions from John Major.

Unionism will have to come to terms with the fact that Labour's huge majority has led to the loss of this influence.

The wild card in all this, however, is Drumcree, which is shorthand for the loyalist marching season in general and in particular the controversial march due to take place at Portadown, Co Armagh, early in July. The Unionist community is clearly torn as to whether pressing its right to march should take precedence over its fears about another summer of widespread disruption.

In a nutshell, therefore, the challenge for Labour will be to attempt to arrange another IRA ceasefire, but to do so without dramatically increasing the fears and insecurities of the Unionists, which would make marching confrontations much more likely.