Ulster peace talks fail to bridge the great divide: Months of meetings have not found any common ground, writes David McKittrick

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland political talks, which are due to resume at Stormont in Belfast today, have so far served to illustrate the huge gulf between Unionists and nationalists rather than to uncover common ground.

While it is too early to write off the exercise as doomed to failure, after months of talks the two sides have not budged from their initial positions. There is also no sign of personal trust developing.

To have any prospect of success, some breakthrough will be needed to lift the process on to a higher plane and create a more productive atmosphere.

Business is being conducted not only by negotiation at the conference table but through a regular flow of leaks to the media. Almost all documents have been published, which has done nothing to increase trust but which has kept the public abreast of what are purportedly confidential talks.

Attention has centred on what might be called a partial walk-out by the Rev Ian Paisley, though his departure from the table was softened when he left observers in the conference chamber and said he would return when the agenda reached articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution.

Mr Paisley has declared, with some support from James Molyneaux, leader of the larger Ulster Unionist Party, that there is little point in the talks continuing unless Dublin commits itself to sponsoring a referendum designed to remove the two articles. Dublin has defended the constitution with a robustness that has brought Unionist complaints of inflexibility. An Irish government document, which this week became the most recent to be leaked, made it clear that any constitutional change would depend on substantial concessions from Unionists in the form of new north-south institutions.

It declared: 'If, as certain delegations have urged, proposals for constitutional change emerging from the negotiations were to include changes to the Irish constitution, the strength and quality of the link between both parts of Ireland would be one of the important factors in shaping the judgement of the electorate in this regard.'

Dublin is not in a mood to cave in to Mr Paisley's demand, and the sorting-out of this particular matter is the present major issue for the talks, which are due to move from Belfast to Dublin on Monday. After that, the holding of the next Anglo-Irish ministerial conference, due at the end of the month, could become another issue.

Looking beyond these immediate arguments, the talks process has produced few signs of a successful outcome. On the nationalist side the Irish government and the northern Social Democratic and Labour Party have presented the appearance of tight, well-co-ordinated teams.

On the Unionist side, however, there have been clear signs of poor organisation, inept negotiation and internal faction-fighting. There is little sign of co-ordination between the Unionist parties, while within both there have been signs of internal disagreement.

In addition, Mr Paisley's behaviour has shown that he continues to be the most unpredictable of politicians. One key question is whether, even if eventual agreement is reached, he could be relied upon to uphold his end of the bargain in any new settlement.