Can they do it again?

Albert Reynolds was a key figure in the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Now that his Fianna Fail party is set to return to power, we assess (left) whether as 'peace envoy' he can bring about a peace process mark two, and (right) the role of Mary Robinson in a modernised Ireland

The return to power in Dublin of Fianna Fail makes a renewed IRA ceasefire more likely, certainly in theory and probably in practice. The word "probably" is there because the inner workings of the IRA and Sinn Fein remain as mysterious as ever.

No one really knows whether the republicans are ready to repeat the 1994 ceasefire exercise: the generality of their supporters certainly want and indeed expect it, but whether the IRA's military bosses are ready to give the word is more problematic. The expected elevation of the Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern to the position of Taoiseach (prime minister) will certainly strengthen the case of those republicans who argue for peace.

The southern Irish view of the northern Ireland peace process is a paradoxical one. During the election campaign the issue featured hardly at all; when it comes to the north, the strongest ambition of most southerners, on the surface at least, is to hear no more of it.

Yet the southern electorate is very canny and highly politicised, voters there keeping a weather eye on what is going on in the ever-troubled north. Thus, when an opinion poll asked which of the parties would best handle the issue, 43 per cent said Fianna Fail, as against only 22 per cent who opted for John Bruton's Fine Gael.

While there is no evidence that this judgement swung any appreciable number of votes, it may well have informed the views of those choosing between a Bruton-led or an Ahern-led administration. It certainly seems to suggest widespread support for the view that the last Fianna Fail-led government, under Albert Reynolds, gets credit for helping to start the peace process. John Bruton, by contrast, scored low on the issue.

Although the last ceasefire ended violently, with huge bombs at Canary Wharf and Manchester, the manifestos and campaign statements of all the major parties illustrated the almost universal assumption that the way ahead is through a peace process mark two.

The election of a Sinn Fein TD to the Dail, the first for many years and the first who will ever take his seat, is not viewed as a sign of any new militancy or appetite for conflict. Instead, this rise in the Sinn Fein vote can be taken as a sign of increasing public approval of the republican refrain that they want peace. In other words, by the same process which recently increased Sinn Fein's vote in the north, some voters are becoming less scared of Sinn Fein and more trusting in their bona fides in the south.

The voters and the parties want a speedy and genuine IRA ceasefire, followed by Sinn Fein entry into talks, followed by the hammering out of a new settlement. That settlement must have something for everyone, since if it does not, violence will erupt again at a later date.

While this was John Bruton's approach as Taoiseach, it seems that he lost marks on several points. The peace process involved the republican movement, the SDLP and Fianna Fail but not Fine Gael: as such Bruton had no proprietorial feelings towards it, and a fair number of instinctive caveats.

To this lack of empathy was added an alleged inconsistency of approach. Bruton changed his mind at a number of key points, and in doing so alleviated the pressure on London to keep the process moving. Both northern and southern nationalists had become accustomed to a pattern of John Hume and Albert Reynolds maintaining constant pressure on John Major. Under Bruton this chain was broken.

Bruton's style was to seek a consensus with Major and with David Trimble's Ulster Unionists. Here was the crucial difference: Reynolds threw everything into achieving and maintaining an IRA ceasefire, figuring that agreement with Unionists would have to wait, and would in any event become easier to achieve once the IRA's guns were silenced.

But Bruton's attempts to reach out to Unionist parties dissipated the sharp focus of Dublin's policy and, in part because of this, the ceasefire collapsed. Furthermore, his gestures towards Unionists were not reciprocated. Serious clashes during the marches at Drumcree and other events illustrated that Unionism was in any case moving to the right rather than thinking in terms of reconciliation. Bruton's vision of himself as Taoiseach of everyone in Ireland, nationalist and Unionist alike, was rebuffed by Unionists, most of whom do not consider themselves Irish at all.

The relationship between Unionists and Fianna Fail has traditionally been so cool as to be arctic, and there is little prospect of a major thaw in the short term. The signs are that Ahern will follow the Reynolds example and concentrate primarily on achieving a new IRA ceasefire, leaving until a later date any building of bridges to Unionism.

Ahern has spoken of appointing Reynolds, who has just been re-elected to the new Dail (Parliament), as a sort of peace envoy with a role in rebuilding a peace process. This would probably be welcomed by republicans, who never worked well with Bruton but remember Reynolds as a pragmatist who was prepared to do business with them.

But another ceasefire may not come easily. Even with Reynolds fully on board the process last time around, the 1994 ceasefire took years to bring about. It was preceded by setbacks and outbreaks of violence which on several occasions brought Reynolds and others involved close to despair.

It could be the same again. When republicans asked for direct contacts with the British government, Tony Blair agreed, and Martin McGuinness twice met officials. The republican conditions for a new ceasefire, which include automatic entry into negotiations and the dropping of any idea of prior decommissioning of weapons, are sensitive issues, yet the difficulties they pose are not insuperable.

But the two meetings were followed by two IRA bombing attempts which unexpectedly ended an undeclared seven-week ceasefire. No one was killed, but the intent was clearly murderous, and the attacks have badly dented the hope that the path to a new ceasefire could be relatively smooth. The lesson of 1994 is that the persistence of violent acts does not necessarily mean that a ceasefire is not in the offing; but it does mean that people may die in the meantime.

The republicans can be in no doubt, however, that the southern consensus in favour of inclusive negotiations arises from the belief that Sinn Fein wants to enter politics, and does not spring from any readiness to embrace a new toleration of violence. The vast majority of nationalists, both north and south, want a new peace process, not a new war process.

But whatever is going on within republicanism, the outcome of the southern election is another pointer in the direction of a ceasefire. The IRA and Sinn Fein will not move until they are certain that any cessation will lead to negotiations, but most of the jigsaw is now in place.

Fianna Fail is coming back in; the Americans remain well disposed; Labour's big majority means the Unionists have lost their armlock on London; Sinn Fein is thriving, on a peace ticket; and a strong new British government is in place. Even on their own terms, republicans are fast running out of reasons for not laying down their guns.

The writer is 'The Independent' Ireland correspondent.

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