Momentum for talks builds as Major joins 'right' side

Irish peace process: PM makes IRA an offer it will find hard to refuse
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The Independent Online
Pressure on the IRA to move towards a new ceasefire is being maintained at a high level largely because John Major has, in the eyes of nationalist Ireland, finally put himself on the right side of the talks issue.

That opinion also holds for a sizeable though less publicly vociferous section of Unionist opinion, which has also come to the conclusion that talks hold the key to progress.

At this week's Downing Street summit Mr Major came to endorse the view, strongly argued by Dublin and Social Democratic Labour Party leader John Hume, that a clear timetable and path to talks should be laid out. In doing so he not only met Sinn Fein's request for the setting of a fixed date for talks but also joined the consensus in favour of a swift move to the table.

The enthusiasm for talks was reflected in an opinion poll carried out in mid-February, following the Docklands bombing, for the Dublin Sunday Independent. This found that, even in the absence of an IRA ceasefire, all-party talks were favoured by 85 per cent in the Republic and 56 per cent in Northern Ireland. With an IRA ceasefire in place, the figures rose to 94 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

The issue of talking to terrorists or their representatives was for a quarter of a century one of the most controversial in Irish politics, and although many contacts were made they almost always took place in secret.

Then in 1993 the issue moved to centre-stage when it emerged that Mr Hume was holding private talks with Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams. The disclosure led to a storm of political protest and condemnation, but Mr Hume's approach was seen to be endorsed by general nationalist public opinion.

The IRA ceasefire of August 1994 was widely seen as vindication and justification of the policy of holding dialogue with elements such as Sinn Fein. In its wake many Unionists said privately that talks with Sinn Fein were inevitable, but Unionist political leaders favoured delay.

Mr Major's endorsement of this approach was one reason why, when the ceasefire broke down, sections of opinion in Ireland and Britain said he should bear some of the blame. This was reflected in another opinion poll which indicated that more than 70 per cent of people in the Republic held the British government responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire.

That collapse seems if anything to have increased the numbers favouring talks. While Unionist leaders continue to exude resistance to talks, elements in the Protestant community as disparate as senior businessmen, police officers and loyalist paramilitaries say there must be discussions.

With this week's summit Mr Major has shifted his position. He is no longer seen as one determined to delay the process almost indefinitely, and at a stroke has joined the ranks of those who say that getting to the table is a matter of urgency. In doing so he has taken the moral and political high ground, and made the IRA an offer which it will find difficult to refuse.