Talks begin without Sinn Fein

Ulster peace: One of the prime movers for today's round-table meeting will be conspicuously absent
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The Independent Online
Twenty-one months after the IRA ceasefire of August 1994, the British and Irish governments and most of the Northern Ireland political parties are today due to assemble in Belfast for what could be historic talks on the future.

One irony is that the Unionist parties, which were most reticent about going to the table, will be there. Another is that Sinn Fein, which has for years made the calling of such talks its principal political demand, will not be present.

The two governments judged that Sinn Fein lost its right to a place at the table when the IRA shattered its ceasefire with the Docklands bomb in east London in February, in which two people died. Meanwhile, the Unionists were eased towards talks by last month's election.

Sinn Fein is not yet in the talks, but many factors argue that another IRA ceasefire may not be long delayed. If so, it could be the first time that all parties to the conflict are assembled in one place, which would in itself be a momentous development.

That could in time lead to a historic agreement; equally, it could end up in fiasco. Too many previous rounds of talks have ended in rancour, walk-outs and even fisticuffs for anyone to be confident that the negotiations will end in success.

To point to just one unpromising sign: the Rev Ian Paisley has been dispatched to the talks, on a ticket of no negotiations with republicans, by almost one voter in five. He may regard this as a mandate to indulge his penchant for theatrical gestures during the discussions.

While Sinn Fein and the IRA decide on whether the talks are worth joining, the world will be pressing them for another ceasefire; and at this moment the logic points in that direction.

Sinn Fein pushed for talks, and they have now been convened. It wanted assurances that discussions would not be restricted to a harangue on decommissioning; and a number of near-guarantees have been built in to help ensure that political negotiations will take place.

The presence at the talks of the Irish government, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and, as chairman, George Mitchell, the former American senator, amount to strong indications that the talks should cover the fundamental issues the republicans want to raise.

At the same time, an early breakdown in the talks could harden Sinn Fein in its view that Unionists are not ready for real negotiations, and that the British government is not ready to push them in that direction.

But the republicans have just received, in their record vote in the election in Northern Ireland, the strongest and clearest possible message from their own supporters that they should be attempting to re-build the peace process.

It is technically open to the IRA to walk away from the talks and to stage another bombing attack, most likely in Britain. But it must know that doing so would bring upon it the most severe political penalties, not just from outside opinion but from its own supporters and sympathisers.

This is probably the strongest pointer towards another ceasefire: its timing, however, will be dictated by detailed tactical considerations.