ULSTER What next?

Stephen Castle reviews the options
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The Independent Online
THE IRA may be back at war, but it would be wrong to imagine that dialogue on the future of Northern Ireland is over.

In just 24 hours last week John Major packed in phone calls or meetings with the US President, the Irish Prime Minister, George Mitchell (who compiled the report on arms decommissioning), and the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble. Other meetings continue, with figures such as John Hume, Ian Paisley and John Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party.

In Dublin, John Bruton and his deputy prime minister, Dick Spring, are equally active - Mr Bruton and Mr Major are hoping to clear the way for an Anglo-Irish summit this week. Mr Trimble, Mr Hume and senior White House officials, meantime, are also busy.

But is there any point, when the men of war are not involved? What are the options open to the politicians, now that the ceasefire is over? Here are four:

OPTION 1

The Open Door

This approach, favoured in Whitehall, involves constructing a peace process without slamming the door on Sinn Fein. It involves the "fusion", into a single package, of ideas proposed by several leading protagonists, leading ultimately to all-party talks. The components of this package are, 1. Dayton-style proximity talks (proposed by the Irish government), 2. elections to a negotiating body (put forward by London and the Ulster Unionists) and 3. a referendum seeking a mandate for peace and round-table talks (Mr Hume's plan). None of these plans, individually, is acceptable to all parties, so Dublin and London are trying to weave them together into a sequence of events which might make them so.

This would start with "intensive" negotiations (proximity talks by another name), followed by legislation in Westminster to permit elections in Northern Ireland coinciding with a referendum north and south of the border. (This would be the first ballot on both sides of the border since 1918.) Then all-party talks would begin.

Several problems present themselves, the first being the involvement of Sinn Fein. It would be excluded unless and until the ceasefire is restored or it condemns violence. However, contacts between the two governments and Sinn Fein would continue through officials, not ministers. Mr Bruton's hope is that, as Sinn Fein sees the pace being forced, it can be tempted or pressured into some acceptable form of renunciation of violence. This could then be the basis of Gerry Adams taking his place in the political process. Downing Street has not, formally, gone quite that far, arguing that Sinn Fein's inclusion in negotiations "would, of course, depend on their own actions, including a genuine end to the renewed violence".

Then there is the question of a timetable for round-table talks - the issue which is holding up agreement on a date for the Anglo-Irish summit. Dublin sees a timetable as essential to restoring momentum in the process. It is the only way, it argues, to convince nationalist opinion that the process is real rather than an endless series of delays.

Mr Major and Mr Trimble have always resisted anything except very loose targets for talks, arguing that they put unnecessary and sometimes unrealistic pressure on the participants, producing a crisis if they are not met. Mr Trimble may be able to use his increasingly powerful position at Westminster to stiffen British resolve in resisting Irish demands for an early May deadline for all-party talks.

Meanwhile Mr Hume will need persuading to drop his hostility to elections, which he opposes even as part of a package involving a referendum. And the Unionists will be sceptical of any Sinn Fein declaration backing non- violence. And even if these obstacles are overcome, others will remain. Should the Unionists get into talks which include Sinn Fein, they may still demand early decommissioning of weapons. That could return the peace process to square one.

OPTION 2

Closing the door

This approach - pressing on with the peace process but excluding Sinn Fein entirely - is favoured by some hardline Unionists. They argue that Gerry Adams now has no more than marginal influence on the IRA and can therefore be ignored. Moreover, they say that the pursuit of such an agenda would demonstrate a determination to show that terrorism will not prevail.

The British government is anxious not to go down this route while any hope of Sinn Fein inclusion remains. British sources do, however, see it as a possible outcome "down the line" if the IRA campaign continues and Sinn Fein refuses to denounce it. They believe that Northern Ireland could go ahead with a Stormont-type assembly administering local government. To provide some compensation to the nationalists, this could be balanced by setting up some areas of cross-border co-operation along the lines that were explored by the Dublin-London Joint Framework Document. In the short term - and possibly the long term too - the Irish government, the SDLP and the Americans would resist this tactic on the grounds that it simply fails to tackle the problem of violence. That makes it a long shot.

OPTION 3

The Clinton Card

President Clinton and his officials have had a growing influence on events in Northern Ireland in the past three years. Can they now save the peace? Just over two weeks ago, Richard Holbrooke, the brusque US diplomat who knocked heads together in Bosnia, was claiming Ireland as another US foreign policy success. The Docklands bomb changed all that. Washington is still involved - over visas and Sinn Fein funds, for example (see below) - but whether it will get any deeper into the process is an open question.

Mr Clinton's improving domestic fortunes, with his Republican opponents attacking each other and safe re-election in November looking ever more likely, give him less of an incentive to take risks in the search for foreign policy successes.

Nevertheless, after his triumphant visit to Belfast and Dublin last year, Mr Clinton has leverage and could apply subtle pressure on the participants, both in London and Ireland, to make concessions. The nationalist side sees some attractions in the White House acting as a guarantor of any new peace package, specifically ensuring a date for talks.

The Irish government also believes that Mr Mitchell, the former senator whose report Mr Major dismissed, may still be able to assist, at a later date, for example on the details of decommissioning. He has made clear his willingess to help if asked. But the British are less positive; one senior source said last week: "Don't look for Senator Mitchell to become an envoy or intermediary - it's not in our minds."

OPTION 4

War-war

Beside the openings for jaw-jaw, some see a military alternative. Calls for a tough line on the terrorists and internment in Northern Ireland have been muted ever since the statement by Peter Brooke, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the IRA could not be defeated by force. But last week the issue resurfaced. John Butcher, MP for Coventry South West, asked the Prime Minister in the Commons whether he agreed "that those who wish to damage the civil liberties of our people should not be too surprised if their own civil liberties are damaged in the pursuit of justice".

This sort of sentiment on the Conservative backbenches could increase if more bombings or assassinations take place. One source added: "If that happens, more Tory MPs will be asking what the Irish government is doing to find the dumps of terrorist arms, and why they do not allow hot pursuit over their border by British helicopters."

More specifically, the Butcher question was seen as a marker for a possible backbench push for internment if the situation deteriorates. Everything suggests that that will be resisted.

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