Few certainties in atmosphere of doubt

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The Independent Online
In an uncertain situation, only two things seem clear. There will be a Northern Ireland election on 30 May, and inter-party talks will open in Belfast on 10 June. Almost everything else is in doubt, in an atmosphere full of suspicion.

John Major, in his Irish Times article, directly addressed republican concerns about the nature of the 10 June talks. Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, had repeatedly called for assurances that everything would be on the table in a wide-ranging negotiation. The Prime Minister duly stated that they would be "a genuine and serious effort to reach a comprehensive settlement, covering all the issues of concern". He added that he wanted Sinn Fein to take part.

Mr Adams had sought reassurance that the talks would not stall at an early stage on weapons decommissioning. Mr Major offered the following: "Decommissioning will also need to be addressed at the beginning of the talks and agreement reached on how [the US Senator] Mitchell's recommendations on decommissioning can be taken forward, without blocking the negotiations."

This formulation is opaque and as such it will not in itself satisfy the republican quest for an unambiguous commitment that wide-ranging talks will be on offer. Sinn Fein is watching not just London but also the Ulster Unionists, whose leader, David Trimble, is seeking firm assurances that actual decommissioning will take place.

The republicans are therefore sizing up the intentions of both the Government and the Unionists. There is unlikely to be another ceasefire until and unless they become much more confident that Mr Major's offer is for real. The emphasis which Mr Major has placed on decommissioning was arguably the main reason for the IRA's return to terrorism with the London docklands bomb in February. The issue came to the fore in late 1994, not long after the IRA cessation and has stayed at the top of the agenda since.

In addition to these public exchanges, it may be assumed that intense activity is going on behind the scenes. Dublin and Washington are both active at the moment, while it would come as no surprise to learn that various channels of secret contact are in operation.