The Irish Peace Process: Sinn Fein comes in from the cold

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The Independent Online
The most important function of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which met for the first time in Dublin yesterday, is to help bring the republican movement into Irish constitutional politics, writes David McKittrick.

While John Major has insisted on playing a slow and cautious game with Sinn Fein, Albert Reynolds has seen his role as moving briskly to seize the moment and bring the republicans in from the cold.

The IRA cessation of violence was announced on 31 August; the historic handshake between Mr Reynolds and Gerry Adams took place on 6 September; and yesterday Sinn Fein got its feet under the political table in Dublin. Mr Major, by contrast, has not yet authorised any contact with Sinn Fein: his timetable is that the first exploratory contact between officials and republicans will take place 'before this year is out'.

The genesis of the forum lay originally in a much more grandiose idea, with the notion of an all-inclusive conference table which might even produce a binding report.

That early idea has contracted considerably, and yesterday's proceedings opened without participation from any of the major northern Unionist groups.

But, in Dublin's eyes, it still has a significant part to play in the peace process.

Mr Reynolds's theory is that it is worth taking risks in forcing the pace if the result is that Sinn Fein becomes inextricably bound up in the political processes.

The forum's terms of reference set out that it is to examine ways to establish peace, stability and reconciliation, and to remove barriers of distrust. As of now, there exists next to no trust between republicans and conventional southern politicians.

Sinn Fein wins less than 2 per cent of the vote in the Republic, and for many years has stood no chance of winning a seat in the Dail. Most mainstream southern politicians have never met Gerry Adams or any of Sinn Fein's leadership: nearly all of them detest what they believe he used to stand for, which is the use of violence. The hope is that the forum will assist in gradually breaking down distrust.

Unionist parties have characterised it as essentially a nationalist exercise, and declined to take part. There will, however, be some non-nationalist input from the middle of the road Alliance Party, which in Northern Ireland takes votes from both communities.