McGuinness sets a puzzle for Sinn Fein: David McKittrick examines the problems posed by republican leader's statement

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FOR SEVERAL weeks now, since John Major and Albert Reynolds produced the Downing Street peace declaration, the key republican buzzword has been 'clarification'.

It quickly became clear that the declaration had not hit the jackpot and would not bring about an early cessation of IRA violence. But it was also evident that the document was a substantial one which had given the republican movement much food for thought.

Sinn Fein kicked for touch by saying it was ambiguous and required clarification, preferably by dialogue between itself and the British and Irish governments. The idea was to gain time and reduce the status of the declaration from a definitive position to the opening bid in a process of negotiation.

The republicans have since hammered away on this point, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on themselves by portraying John Major as being unreasonable in refusing to clarify crucial parts of a complex and ambiguous document.

Yesterday, however, it was Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein who made statements, in a Dublin newspaper interview which called out for clarification. Mr McGuinness shook off some of the soft-focus rhetoric which has of late characterised republican pronouncements and got back to what seemed to be republican basics.

In contrast to the recent emphasis on agreement and respect for the views of others, he declared: 'Anything short of a decision by the British government that they are leaving this country would be unacceptable. The time period would be up for discussion but anything short of that would personally to me be totally unacceptable. Those people trying to suggest that we are trying to bring people to accept objectives less than we originally set out are sadly mistaken.'

Mr McGuinness then went further and discussed time-scales for a British withdrawal in a way which republican leaders have deliberately avoided in recent years. Asked 'What sort of time-scale would you be talking about?' he replied: 'Our position remains what it has been in the past, that the British should be out of here in the lifetime of a parliament, within five years.

'Obviously we are pragmatists, we are level-headed and responsible. We are not saying the British have to be out of here next week . . . and if someone was to say to us that even five years is difficult, it might take six or seven, then we are prepared to look at that.

'I'm sure there are other republicans who, if they were told it would take eight years, then they would look at that and say, well that is not a problem.' The import of these words seemed to be that Sinn Fein had never deviated from, or had suddenly regressed to, its traditional position that there would be no lasting peace in Ireland until its old 'Brits Out' aim had been achieved. This seemed to confound the arguments of observers who believed the republican movement had genuinely shifted its position.

In much of the rest of the lengthy interview Mr McGuinness stayed fairly close to the party line, calling for clarification of the declaration. When he used the words 'worthless' and 'totally unacceptable' he was careful to indicate that he was referring not to the declaration but to comments made in the Commons by John Major. He did not welcome the declaration, but nor did he reject it.

But his remarks on a timetable for withdrawal were a clear departure from the norm. Taken together with the recent killing of a British soldier and the wave of firebombings which caused millions of pounds worth of damage in Belfast, they raised the question of whether the IRA had ever been really serious about its 'peace process'.

By late afternoon yesterday there were clear signs that Sinn Fein believed the wrong image was being projected. Mr McGuinness issued a fax saying some media reports had misleadingly suggested Sinn Fein had rejected the declaration: he did not mention timetables, and he did not say he had been misquoted.

Later, a senior Sinn Fein source sought to smooth the harshness of Mr McGuinness's words. This source, the republican equivalent of Downing Street's Gus O'Donnell, said the interview had contained nothing dramatically new. As far as the declaration went, 'we haven't said yes, we haven't said no'.

On the question of timetables, he said republicans had a particular view of the type of long-term settlement which would be necessary. They had sought to move away from a position of putting timescales on this process: 'We get into deadlines and timetables once we get into discussion.'

But had Mr McGuinness not introduced it? 'He was responding to a question and he gave four different times, quite clearly indicating a willingness to be pragmatic on the issue.

'Eight years - could be 10, could be 15, let's not get too bogged down in timetables. We're not and we don't intend to. How pragmatic is a matter for discussion; how long we're talking about is a matter for discussion.'

This gloss puts a different perspective on Mr McGuinness's blunt comments, and attempts to restore to the Sinn Fein position some of the same ambiguity which, the republicans complain, is problematic in the Downing Street declaration.

Ultimately, however, one or both sides will have to move to clear up the ambiguities between two irreconcilable concepts. Mr McGuinness wants Britain to declare when it will leave Northern Ireland; Britain says it will leave only when a majority wants it to.

One observer summed it up: 'If consent is meaningful you can't have a timetable. If you have a timetable you're not talking about consent.'

The need now is to clarify whether Mr McGuinness's statements represent Sinn Fein's preferred outcome, or whether they are the party's non-negotiable position.

Leading article, page 11

(Photograph omitted)

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