The Ulster Peace Process: Speech signals way for serious talks: Prime Minister's Belfast visit was a minor triumph, writes David McKittrick

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The Independent Online
SEVEN WEEKS and two days after the IRA declared a complete cessation of all military operations, John Major yesterday formally accepted that the ending of the campaign of republican terrorism was for real.

He came to Belfast with measures designed to inject momentum into the Irish peace process; and, judging from the initial welcome from almost all sides, the signs are that he succeeded.

He may be in trouble at Westminster with the 'sleaze factor' and other difficulties, but in Irish terms this was his second minor triumph in five weeks. On his last visit, just a month ago, he also pulled off the feat of pleasing both Unionists and nationalists.

One theory popular at Westminster is that Mr Major and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, have jointly choreographed their responses to the events of the past two months, carefully crafting and co-ordinating their activities. The reality, from the perspective of Dublin, has been very different.

In and out of government, there has been irritation and exasperation at what has been seen as Mr Major's tardiness, one cartoonist caricaturing his 'permanent vegetative state'.

The sweep of yesterday's speech will do much to silence such criticism. On one reading he might safely have moved earlier; on another he showed prudence in waiting until there was broad consensus that he should do so.

Sinn Fein, the Irish government and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have all been urging movement for some time, while James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader, has already signalled that he had no objection to opening contacts with Sinn Fein.

Whichever reading is right, Mr Major has now given the signal for the opening of serious talks and movement on a whole variety of fronts. The various elements touched on in his speech give some indication of the many complex, delicate and intertwined issues which lie ahead.

Exploratory talks with Sinn Fein are to be begun 'before this year is out', and given that most parties accept this fact it will not be surprising if these contacts are initiated within weeks.

Mr Major refrained from making the surrender of IRA weaponry a pre-condition for progress. Instead, he referred first to exploring how to bring Sinn Fein into normal political life and enable it to play the same part as the existing constitutional parties. Only after this did he specify that the talks would cover the question of paramilitaries on both sides handing in their weapons, adding: 'This is a difficult issue but it cannot be ducked.'

These constructions appear to indicate that he regards the guns issue as involving both republicans and loyalists, and that he will not turn the early surrender of the guns into a sticking-point. He indicated that the Government would, in due course, open talks with loyalist paramilitaries also. Simultaneously with these contacts, ministers and officials are to be involved in further talks with Dublin on a framework document setting out the two governments' joint ideas on future Anglo-Irish relations. Meanwhile, work is continuing on a paper setting out the Government's proposals for a new Belfast assembly. All this will take place against the background of a gradual demilitarisation of Northern Ireland's security apparatus. Mr Major gave no timetable or details about how this would be done, but he said the objective was a return to exclusively civilian policing.

This can be expected to involve a gradual winding- down of military patrolling and of military accompaniment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in what used to be regarded as the most lethal areas. Many Army bases, look-out posts and border installations may become surplus to requirements.

Mr Major also touched on the Northern Ireland economy, asserting that peace would give it a boost and looking forward to the possibility of new outside investment. But he also recognised that transition would bring extra economic and social difficulties.

Important political activity gets under way in Dublin next Friday, when the new Forum for Peace and Reconciliation meets for the first time. This will mark the entry of Sinn Fein into the Republic's political mainstream by involving its representatives in talks with members of all major parties in the south.

Beyond all of this lies the eventual goal of all-inclusive round-table talks leading to an agreed political settlement.

(Photograph omitted)