Ireland: the path to peace

Mo Mowlam, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spells out her approach to the talks
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The Independent Online
THE Labour Party has maintained bipartisan support for the Government throughout the Northern Ireland peace process. We want to continue to give the Government as much room for manoeuvre as possible within the principles set out in the Downing Street Declaration and the Joint Framework Document.

We do not believe that ministers should be dependent on their right wing or on minority parties for support on this issue. Equally, we do not want to give any of the Northern Ireland parties cause to procrastinate or prevaricate in the hope that it can get a better deal if it waits for a Labour government.

Both the British and Irish governments have said that the ceasefire must be in place for Sinn Fein to take part in all-party talks starting on 10 June. Both governments have also said that there are no further preconditions. The consultation paper sent to the parties on Friday, setting out the ground rules for negotiations, makes that clear.

What, then, is Labour's view of how we should move towards all-party talks on 10 June? It is essential that the British and Irish governments continue to work together and that both should play a full part in negotiations. And as Tony Blair said in the Commons, options put forward by the Northern Ireland parties will have to be given full consideration along with those proposed by the Government.

At the beginning of negotiations, we believe, all parties should make clear their absolute commitment to the Mitchell report's principles of peace and democracy. They should address the issue of decommissioning arms according to the procedures outlined in Mitchell. This process, working in parallel to the negotiations, is crucial.

We believe that, as Mitchell suggests, an independent, international presence should help to oversee decommissioning.

We also believe that by dealing with other issues, also in parallel, it will be possible to build trust and confidence between the parties. For example, there is cross-party interest in developing a bill of rights for Northern Ireland and a clear strategy for economic development.

Proposals leading to negotiations should be broadly acceptable to both communities and any elections should lead directly to talks with no further preconditions. The negotiating format for the talks that begin on 10 June should not be expected to emerge from a debating chamber. It should be clearly separate.

A clear timetable should be set for those negotiations before they begin. That timetable, we believe, should extend beyond the elections in America, the UK and, if possible, Ireland. Electoral politics will thus be kept out of the peace process as far as possible.

The Northern Ireland elections should ensure that all significant sections of the population are represented and that the smaller parties will be able to take part in the negotiations. But the parties themselves are divided over what system of voting should be used.

Some want a "party list" system, whereby Northern Ireland would be treated as one constituency and representation distributed to each party according to its proportion of the vote. Others want parliamentary constituencies, with five members elected from each constituency.

The British and Irish governments agreed, in a joint statement on 28 February, that if the parties could not agree, the British government should decide on a system that it judged to be broadly acceptable. We will support legislation that commands broad acceptance from the parties. A hybrid, with some representatives elected from a "party list", others from constituencies, would be a possible compromise.

There are advantages, too, in referenda being held in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic which could establish a clear mandate for the democratic search for a negotiated settlement and an end to violence.

Labour's support will be crucial if legislation for the elections is to be passed swiftly and efficiently and the talks are to start on time. We believe that this can and must be achieved.

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