Government replies to Sinn Fein: David McKittrick reports on Downing Street's 21-page response to questions on Declaration

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THE Government's 21-page response to questions from Sinn Fein contained much emphasis on the principle that Irish unity could only come about with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland, which will not find favour with republicans.

But it also contained a series of assurances, which may well be of interest to Sinn Fein, that it and other parties would be free to place whatever issues they wanted on the table in future political talks.

While the indications are that Sinn Fein will take weeks and perhaps longer to give a definitive response to this document and to the Downing Street declaration, it is obvious that the Government's comments constitute a serious attempt to address many of the concerns of republicans.

Many of the answers will not be to Sinn Fein's liking, but the party will find it difficult to claim that many important aspects of the declaration remain ambiguous and require further clarification. The following is a summary of main points:

British intentions and

interests

Sinn Fein asked: 'What are the British government's long-term interests and objectives in relation to Ireland?' The Government replied by quoting from the declaration, which stated that its primary interest was to see peace established and said it would work with the Irish government to find agreement.

Sinn Fein asked how the Government could reconcile its assertion that political structures could not be pre- determined with maintenance of the union. The Government said that in political dialogue no outcome was either predetermined or ruled out. It quoted the declaration in saying that it would uphold the democratic wish of a majority in Northern Ireland, whether they preferred to support the union or have a united Ireland.

Sinn Fein queried why, if the British government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, it did not base its policy on the ending of the union. The Government's short reply was: 'The declaration makes it clear that the British government is committed to upholding the principle of consent.'

Irish unity

Sinn Fein asked whether the union between Britain and Northern Ireland would be on the agenda for negotiation. The Government replied that no political objective could properly be excluded from discussion in the talks process.

Self-determination

Sinn Fein asked how, if the Irish people had self-determination, the British government could qualify this right. The Government, in reply, quoted the Taoiseach's statement that self-determination must be exercised with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

Referendum

Sinn Fein asked how the government would establish what the wishes of 'a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland' were. The Government said this would be determined by a numerical majority of those voting in a Northern Ireland referendum. The last such poll, held in 1973, produced a decisive majority for remaining in the UK.

Constitutional balance

Sinn Fein asked whether the Government accepted that present arrangements did not represent a balanced constitutional accommodation. The Government said it had already acknowledged in the declaration the 'absence of a lasting and satisfactory settlement of relationships'.

Acceptance of the

declaration

In reply to a question on whether parties could enter talks without accepting the declaration in its entirety, the Government said acceptance of the declaration was not a pre-condition for entering the talks process. What was required was a permanent end to the use of paramilitary violence.

Sinn Fein's electoral

mandate

Replying to a question on what Sinn Fein described as its democratic mandate, the Government said it accepted the validity of all electoral mandates, including that of Sinn Fein. This is believed to have been the first time the Government has openly clarified this point.

Unionist 'veto'

Sinn Fein asked whether Unionists held a veto over British government policy. The reply was: 'No group or organisation has a veto over the policy of a democratically elected government. The policy of both governments is however founded firmly on the principles of democracy, agreement and consent.'

Sinn Fein asked how agreement could be reached if Unionists refused to take part in talks. The Government said: 'No organisation has a veto over that process (of finding agreement), whether by withdrawing from it or by refusing to renounce violence.'

Timetable for agreement

A Sinn Fein question on what a reasonable time-scale for agreement would be was answered with the statement that it would be wrong to set an artificial time limit for agreement.

Asked when 'repression and the denial of nationalist rights' would be ended, the Government responded: 'This question is based on assumptions which have no foundation in reality.' But it went on to say that an end to violence 'would open the way for a comprehensive reassessment of existing provisions against terrorism, many of which would become irrelevant and obsolete in a climate of peace'.

Hume-Adams document

Sinn Fein asked the Government to clarify what differences, if any, existed between the agreement drawn up by Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume and the declaration. The Government responded that the declaration was the only text on which it could comment.

Mitchel McLaughlin, a senior Sinn Fein spokesman, said last night that his party would be examining the government document to see whether it provided the clarification required to make a properly informed assessment.

There are no current signs that the IRA is on the point of declaring a cessation of violence or even a temporary ceasefire. But the fact that the Government has made a serious response will greatly increase pressure on republicans to respond to the declaration and place the spotlight firmly on them in the coming weeks.

The Government, by contrast, has acted to remove itself from the 'no clarification' hook on which it has been uncomfortably impaled for some months. In the process it has earned the approval of the Irish government and most other Irish nationalist observers. Dublin has already supplied Sinn Fein with written clarification of its interpretation of the declaration.

Leading article, page 15

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