The road to Ulster peace: How Blair cleared the clouds of mistrust

Pragmatism and an act of faith has brought ceasefire closer
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The Independent Online
On a visit to Belfast late last year, Tony Blair, as Leader of the Opposition, spelt out the question which will assume central importance following a new IRA cessation.

He set out the issue like this: "When the IRA ceasefire was called originally, we all took this as firm evidence that there was a real desire on the part of Sinn Fein to put the past behind it.

"When it ended, renewed violence did not just cause dismay. It caused fundamental doubts about the desire for peace. All the way through this process people ask this question - is participation in the peace process a tactic in an otherwise unbroken armed conflict, or is it a genuine search for a new way forward? If it is the latter, then the door is open - but only if it is the latter."

Since coming to power Mr Blair has addressed the various issues pointed to by Sinn Fein as obstacles in the way of a new cessation in a methodical, almost mechanistic, way. Republicans had said a number of issues had to be addressed before another cessation was possible.

They had to be sure, it was said, that Sinn Fein would be admitted to negotiations if a ceasefire were called. They had to be confident that the de-commissioning issue would not be raised to block their entry. They also had to be confident that it could not be used further down the line, either by the British government or Unionist parties, to have them ejected from talks.

They also asked for a time-table to be laid out for negotiations, apparently to ensure that discussions could not be spun out forever. In addition, they wanted the Government to move on "confidence-building" measures, which principally seemed to mean movement on the treatment and possible release of republican prisoners.

These were exactly the same terms which republicans had put to John Major, via SDLP leader John Hume, in the latter half of last year. But in his response, in November last, Mr Major showed himself disinclined to meet the republican demands.

Within weeks of Labour's election victory, Mr Blair made clear that he wished both to speed up the previously leisurely pace of political talks and explore the possibilities for a new ceasefire. His first move was to sanction meetings between government officials and Sinn Fein.

In the weeks that followed, he made a number of important moves which in effect met republican concerns. Mr Blair set down a timetable for talks, establishing next March as his goal for agreement. This took almost everyone by surprise, first because he had so readily adopted the Sinn Fein suggestion, and second because the deadline was such an ambitious one.

The British and Irish governments laid down the law on the weapons issue, making it plain that despite Unionist protests that prior de-commissioning would not be insisted on, and that de-commissioning would be in parallel with negotiations. This was denounced by the Rev Ian Paisley and strenuously opposed by David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, but yesterday London and Dublin made clear that they did not intend to alter their stance in any important regard.

The Unionists and other parties will have the opportunity in next week's inter-party talks to debate de-commissioning over three days, beginning on Monday. The crunch comes on Wednesday when they vote. At that point Mr Trimble may face the choice of remaining in the talks to sit across the table from Sinn Fein, or of walking out. This would leave Sinn Fein at the talks table while the majority Unionist community's representatives would be absent. Some in his party would not countenance meeting Sinn Fein; but many others fear the prospect of excluding themselves from negotiations.

Mr Blair's moves to meet Sinn Fein's demands were not made against a tranquil background. The IRA maintained an undeclared suspension of violence during the spring elections, but returned to sporadic violence which culminated in the killing of two police officers in Lurgan, Co Armagh in mid June. Each violent incident was followed by calls from Unionists and others for an end to the contacts, but the Government withstood such pressures.

Doing so appeared to be a mixture of acts of faith and pragmatism. The calculation seems to have been that at worst Sinn Fein's pre-conditions would be stripped away, leaving the republicans exposed as bluffers; or it might actually work, with a return to the 1994 cessation.

To most observers, this policy seemed logical enough, yet the speed of last night's developments took almost everyone by surprise. The events of the marching season, while not as disastrous as last year's, were nonetheless disruptive both between the two communities and in terms of the Government's relations with nationalists.

It now seems that the IRA judges that Tony Blair will handle Ceasefire Mark II very differently from John Major's treatment of ceasefire Mark I. That ended in tears; the question now is whether all sides have learnt enough lessons to make mark two a more successful and long-lived venture.