Blair sets Ulster its biggest test

The Government's initiative on decommissioning arms challenges Sinn Fein to decide where it stands, says David McKittrick. For Unionists, too, the next few months will prove crucial
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The Independent Online
At this moment hope and dread co-exist in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair's energy and attack this week instilled unfamiliar urgency into the search for progress as he set timetables for both the paramilitaries and the politicians.

But at the same time the dreary steeple of Drumcree parish church casts a long and ominous shadow over not just politics but over all of life in Northern Ireland, for fears are high that another confrontation is on the cards when the Orange brethren gather there on Sunday week.

The large numbers of sashes and other paraphernalia sold to new Orange members shows that many among the Protestant grass-roots are gearing up for yet another determined assertion of what they see as their heritage. Since last year's clashes the Orange ranks have been swelled by hundreds of recruits, many of whom have what might be described as a militant tendency.

While many Orange greybeards would prefer to avoid confrontation, power in the marching season passes from the stately Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland to the men and youths on the streets. As one senior Orangeman said this week: "There's an air of excitement among the younger ones in the [Orange] institution. The overriding thing is that at this time of the year they're easily worked up.

"Large numbers of them are unemployed - the economy doesn't make any difference to them. A lot of them don't start out to wreck the town but they come out and somebody says `Right, boys' and they get going and then there's no stopping them."

Many non-members of the order, Protestants and Catholics alike, are voting with their feet in a rather different way, by simply getting out before 6 July. Travel agents report a huge increase in the numbers heading for Britain, the Irish Republic and further afield to escape Drumcree, variously describing the exodus as overwhelming, amazing and astounding.

In other words Northern Ireland has just invented refugee tourism. It is another example of how the reality of things here can be so different from appearances: those people in the airport departure lounge are going to look like holiday-makers but actually they will be evacuees.

It is obvious that these are far from ideal conditions for the launching of the type of political initiative which Mr Blair unveiled this week. A bad Drumcree would be a major setback for it and so too would be more IRA violence, but the Blair message was that he would be deflected by neither.

Either side, or both, may well flex their muscles and in their different ways cause trouble, but if they do there will be a political price to pay. The Blair approach means taking risks, but it has also captured the moral high ground in a way which John Major never quite managed to do.

The Government has laid down that political talks will start in earnest in mid-September. Sinn Fein will be allowed entry six weeks after an IRA ceasefire, with no requirement that republicans should pay an admission fee of handing in guns up front. For David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists the bad news was that the previous government's decommissioning demand has been dropped.

The period between now and mid-September may well provide a real test of the Government's nerve. It will certainly test, and may provide a final answer to, crucial questions over the sincerity of those Sinn Fein leaders who say they want, and can deliver, peace and negotiations in place of war.

On one reading these new arrangements can be portrayed as a victory for the republicans who, ever since the ceasefire of August 1994, have been demanding entry to talks without the decommissioning of IRA weaponry. Even after the ceasefire broke down in February of last year the central republican proposition has been that of a new ceasefire in exchange for real talks.

In the meantime republicans have prospered electorally, scooping almost 17 per cent of the vote as nationalists endorsed their basic argument that the absence of peace was due primarily to London's refusal to allow the party into talks. Opinion polls confirmed that much of nationalist Ireland accepted that Sinn Fein really wanted negotiations but that John Major did not.

Mr Blair's approach has been to examine the stated republican requirements for talks and in effect to agree to each one of them. They wanted guaranteed entry, a brisk timetable and the removal of the decommissioning proviso: they got them. Some fine-tuning of detail may be necessary, but in its essentials the full republican shopping-list has been granted.

Yet the initial republican response has been one not of jubilation but of uncertainty. Sinn Fein may in fact be experiencing a sense of loss as its familiar and long-successful arguments have been removed by Mr Blair with almost surgical precision.

His operation was described by one observer yesterday as something of a controlled experiment. As he tests whether the republicans are serious about peace he does so in a transparent manner, eschewing secret meetings with them in favour of openly-announced contacts, and publishing his correspondence to them.

The methodology is almost as important as the substance, for with his open manner Mr Blair has generated new funds of trust with important elements such as the Irish government, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Clinton administration. Where John Major was always dogged by the charge that he was in hock to Unionist MPs, Tony Blair is already establishing a reputation for proceeding in good faith.

This is doing the republicans no good at all, since they are much more at home with a confrontational, hectoring prime minister than with a reasonable and obliging one. The republican publicity and propaganda machine may now need re-programming.

The real test for republicans may come in the second half of next month, assuming that Drumcree passes without developing into a catastrophe. Although Mr Blair refrained from spelling out a deadline in a challenging fashion, entry into talks in mid-September requires a ceasefire by the end of July.

The IRA and Sinn Fein could opt to play it long but there is no evident advantage in delaying a ceasefire until, say, next year rather than calling one next month. It is unlikely that the terms of entry would be any more favourable then.

The real test for Unionism will come possibly at Drumcree but certainly by mid-September, when it should start to become obvious whether David Trimble, Ulster Unionist leader, is to shape up as an unyielding tribal warrior or a leader capable of working out an historic accommodation with Irish nationalists.

If there is no IRA ceasefire the talks will begin without Sinn Fein, with Mr Trimble and Mr Hume under pressure to do real business together. That will be difficult enough, but talks with Sinn Fein present will represent a huge challenge to Unionism.

Ian Paisley, his party and his allies will immediately exit, leaving Mr Trimble to decide whether to stay on as the republicans walk in or to join the Paisleyite exodus. Remaining would represent a huge step for a party which has traditionally regarded Sinn Fein as irreformable cheerleaders for IRA violence; but going means consigning the Protestant community to the wilderness with potentially dangerous consequences. The decision would truly be a defining moment.

Thus the coming months may substantiate or demolish some of the most fundamental aspects of the Northern Ireland question, including whether republicans are capable of delivering peace and whether Unionists can reach accommodation with nationalists.

But next May has now been set as a deadline for political progress, most observers, and participants, will be amazed if any deal has been hammered out by then, whether or not Sinn Fein is part of the negotiations.

In the meantime most attention will focus on whether the IRA will agree a ceasefire again. Most immediately the republicans will want cast-iron guarantees that the decommissioning card cannot be pulled from the pack by Unionists during negotiations in a way which could see Sinn Fein ejected from the talks. If that assurance is given then the last of Sinn Fein's technicalities will have disappeared.

What will remain, however, is the miasma of mistrust which has for so long enveloped politics, the peace process and indeed everyday life in Northern Ireland. This comes not just from the dread of Drumcree but also from the IRA's mistrust of all things and all politicians British, and from the poisonous state of community relations.

Two huge forces are at work here, pulling in opposite directions, both stemming mainly from the troubles. One is the desire for peace, based in large part on the shared experience of a quarter-century of conflict with the lesson, learnt the hard way, that there will be no absolute victory for any side.

But another is that quarter-century's baleful legacy of mistrust and ill-will, which has left the two communities poles apart. The next few months will help answer the nagging question of which of these forces will prevail, and whether the people of Northern Ireland can ever learn to live together, if not in harmony then at least in peace.