Airport Attacks: Heathrow mortars open deep divisions on hopes for peace: David McKittrick reports on the intense debate in Ireland about ending the violence

Click to follow
LEADERS of constitutional nationalist opinion in Ireland are deeply divided on whether the Heathrow mortar attacks and Sunday night's IRA statement should be interpreted as marking the end of hopes for peace.

Intense public debate is going on involving politicians, churchmen and the media on whether any potential remains in the peace process. One striking difference of opinion appears to exist between John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and his deputy, Seamus Mallon.

Mr Hume, whose contacts with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, sparked off most of the recent optimism for peace, continues to insist that 'the best opportunity for peace for 20 years' continues to exist. He called on the British Government yesterday to meet Sinn Fein's requests for clarification of the Downing Street Declaration.

Mr Mallon, by contrast, has made it clear that he did not believe the peace process stood a real chance of success since a faction within the IRA was not prepared to give up violence.

Mr Hume yesterday argued that the IRA had not intended to detonate any of the mortar bombs that were fired into Heathrow last week. He said: 'It was their intention to demonstrate to the British Government what they are capable of, so that if there is a total cessation of violence they are not backing down or standing down from a position of weakness, but from a position of strength.'

A difference of emphasis has also been visible between the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and his deputy, the Labour leader and Tanaiste, Dick Spring. The Taoiseach has indicated that he believes the door is still open to the republicans, while Mr Spring was noticeably more dismissive of IRA intentions.

Similar differences of opinion have become evident elsewhere. While some newspapers have characterised the weekend IRA statement as a rejection of the Downing Street Declaration, others have taken a different view. The Belfast Catholic Irish News, for example, headlined the statement: 'IRA plea for peace - army council offers olive branch.'

The Catholic primate of all-Ireland, Cardinal Cahal Daly, described the events of last week as 'a sad setback to hope', but added: 'In spite of these atrocities, I still do not despair of peace.'

He was contradicted by Father Denis Faul, a Tyrone priest who is noted for his contacts among republicans, and who said he did not believe the Provisionals were interested in peace.

The IRA statement, which overtly neither endorsed nor rejected the declaration, is the latest in a series of deliberately opaque utterances in which the IRA and Sinn Fein proclaim their flexibility and blame the British Government for the violence.

The Heathrow attacks are now being followed by a slight softening in rhetoric. Mr Adams said yesterday that when he called for clarification he did not mean negotiation, as the British Government alleges. It is now suggested that this need not necessarily take the form of direct face-to-face talks, and that written clarification could meet the requests.