Northern Ireland: Years of manoeuvring before all-inclusive talks can begin

Click to follow
ALL THE signs are that keeping the peace process alive and moving forward will entail not months, but years of political talks, manoeuvring and controversies. The Government's private assessment is that all-inclusive round-table negotiations involving London, Dublin and the political parties are probably two years away.

The Irish government and the Clinton administration will undoubtedly be seeking faster progress, but there is so much ground to cover that the process will inevitably be a lengthy one.

In political terms the Irish government is moving fast with the aim of opening its 'Forum for peace and reconciliation' in Dublin next month. Sinn Fein will be included, but the main northern Unionist parties will turn down invitations to attend.

In the meantime, the Irish and British governments are hoping to produce a 'framework document' in about a month's time, setting out their view of the future. John Major emphasised during his visit to Belfast last Friday that this would not be a blueprint, but it is expected to outline the general views of the two governments.

Beyond that lies the task of easing Sinn Fein fully into the political processes. Once the Government has accepted the IRA cessation as permanent, there will be exploratory talks, which Sinn Fein says it expects to begin well before Christmas. Given that these contacts will touch on matters such as the handing in of arms and other highly controversial topics, progress will not be easy.

One large unknown factor underlying all of this is the state of opinion within the republican movement. At the moment it appears solidly behind Gerry Adams, but there are many republican precedents for the emergence of ultras who refuse to give up the use of force.

Assuming any such tendency can be dealt with, many months of work clearly lie ahead before the demilitarisation process is dealt with, and before Sinn Fein can enter conventional politics.

If all that is achieved, there will then come the task of shepherding all the elements involved into inclusive talks. It is difficult ever to imagine a handshake between Mr Adams and the Rev Ian Paisley, but the intention is, possibly using some arm's-length device, to have them engaged in the same talks process to reach a political settlement.

Even to picture a dialogue between the two men is to open a new vista of new problems. Are they, and the British government, ever to agree on Northern Ireland's constitutional position, on Dublin's role, on an equality agenda, on new structures of policing? At this moment, it has to be said that the obstacles to success are formidable: but it must also be pointed out that just a month ago there seemed literally no chance of success at all.

(Photographs omitted)