Commission on Ulster calls for power-sharing: Report attracts 500 submissions on how to break the political logjam in Northern Ireland

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THE REPORT of a unique experiment in community participation in politics, which attracted more than 500 submissions totalling 2 1/2 million words, was published in Belfast yesterday to instant and almost universal criticism from the political parties.

The 440-page report amounts to a mix of ideas, some familiar and some new, on how to break the Northern Ireland logjam. It came from an independent seven-member commission which for more than a year has been sifting through hundreds of submissions from groups and individuals.

Chaired by a Norwegian law professor, Torkel Opsahl, the commission was established by 'Initiative 92', an independent grouping funded by charitable trusts. It has aroused interest not only because of its aim but its form - styling itself 'a citizens' inquiry'.

The report summarises many of the submissions and goes on to make the commission's own recommendations for progress: 49 submissions advocated devolution within the UK; 44 opted for an all-Ireland state; and 33 called for a system of British-Irish joint authority. Others wanted, variously, a European framework, independence or integration with Britain.

Although those favouring Dublin rule or much greater Dublin input were thus in a majority, the commission itself opted for power-sharing in a United Kingdom context.

It reported widespread agreement that any settlement which excluded Sinn Fein from negotiations would be neither lasting nor stable. At the same time, most authors believed that Sinn Fein would have to renounce violence before being included.

It further recommended that the Government should open informal channels of communication with Sinn Fein to test its commitment to the constitutional process and to persuade the IRA to move towards a ceasefire.

Its suggestions pleased almost no one. Sinn Fein said the report's framework was 'essentially partitionist and fundamentally flawed', while at the other end of the political spectrum the Democratic Unionist Party denounced it as 'one-sided and utterly repugnant' to Unionists. The Alliance party thought it 'dangerously naive on constitutional issues and ending violence'. The party leader, John Alderdice, added: 'The proposals bear little relation to the realities which have been confirmed in the recent local government election and are not a framework for peace but a recipe for the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland.'

The report's authors said they were deterred by the criticism, arguing that their brief was to generate discussion and debate. Some politicians clearly view the exercise as an unwelcome encroachment on their professional turf, but at the same time the report will be widely read for elements of fresh thinking and new perspectives.

The commission says a number of notions should be discarded. Northern Ireland is not like any other part of the UK; Britain will not withdraw under pressure of violence; Irish unity is not a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future; the Republic will not renounce the aim of Irish unity.

Furthermore, majority Protestant rule is not viable, and the Unionist community will not accept any executive role for the Republic. Joint authority might increase suspicion and polarisation, it says.

The report recommends that if the current attempt to restart political talks fails, the Government should set up a special commission to consider the future. It suggests putting in place a devolved government based on equality for each community.

This government would then negotiate its relations with Dublin. The nationalist community and its aspirations should be recognised in law by an Act of Parliament, the commission arguing that this legal recognition should not mean the diminution of 'Britishness' for Unionists.

The commission has also published a booklet entitled 100 Ideas, containing 25 of its own suggestions for progress and 75 proposals of interest from various submissions.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 26