Will they ever get round that table?

Is the once unthinkable now possible: a lasting peace without a political settlement in Northern Ireland? Jack O'Sullivan reports
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Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party The idea of sitting down at the same table as Sinn Fein is anathema to him. Opposes Dublin's involvement in talks about Northern Ireland. Would probably boycott round table conference, at least initially.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein

Has called for immediate all-party talks. Says Britain only raised issue of decommissioning as a precondition after the ceasefire. Argues that no ceasefire in Irish history required surrender of weapons before comprehensive talks.

John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP

Says all party talks should start at once. Argues that the important issue is not whether the IRA still has arms, but whether they plan to use them. Is convinced that Sinn Fein is committed to peaceful politics.

David Trimble, leader, Ulster Unionist Party

The IRA would have to decommission arms, and perhaps disband altogether. But if the IRA surrendered even a few weapons, Trimble would come under heavy pressure from the British Government to join talks.

John Bruton, premier, Republic of Ireland

Ready for all-party talks now. Favours dropping the decommissioning precondition. Has proposed new approach whereby talks would go ahead six weeks after an international commission had established Sinn Fein's good intentions.

John Major, Prime Minister

Demands that the IRA begins to decommission weapons before Sinn Fein joins talks. Wants international commission to arrange terms for dealing with IRA's arsenal. But Government has backtracked before, could do so again.

Today more than 80 republican and loyalist prisoners will walk free from Northern Ireland's jails. Their early release shows how the peace process can still deliver results. But today's scenes will mask a dangerous reality: progress towards a political settlement, the vital underpinning of peace, is in deep trouble.

Fifteen months after the IRA laid down its arms, all-party talks look like no more than a distant hope. Britain will not sanction them until the IRA makes at least a token surrender of arms. The Provisionals have, in a rare public statement, refused point blank to make the gesture, leaving neither side with much room for manoeuvre.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the Irish Republic and Britain - the rock upon which a settlement could be built - has deteriorated of late. President Clinton's planned visit later this month to Belfast, Dublin and London may be abandoned and, in any case, holds little prospect of breaking through the impasse.

Worse still, there are signs that guns and bombs are being taken from arsenals that have remained undisturbed for months. A week ago the Irish police discovered 1,700lbs of explosives just across the border in the Republic. Police believe that the massive bomb was to be used in an attack on a security target in Northern Ireland.

Amid the political stalemate, is peace breaking down?

No, is the immediate answer. Last week's foiled bombing was not the work of the Provisional IRA, by far the best-armed republican element. The blame has been laid on the military wing of Republican Sinn Fein, which broke away from the Provisionals in 1986. It is a small, insignificant group, which claims to be the guardian of purist, uncompromising republican ideals. The activities of this fundamentalist splinter group do not signal a general breakdown in the cease-fire, to which the IRA apparently remains committed.

But the fact that a bombing was even considered indicates a change in the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. A few months ago, as one republican remarked, even extremists would not have contemplated such a "spectacular". They would have feared being rounded upon by the rest of the republican community for endangering potential gains from the peace process. Now, after such a long stalemate, the opprobrium is diminished. There seems to be less to lose.

So does this mean it is only a matter of time before the Provisional IRA eventually takes up arms again?

There is certainly frustration among northern republicans. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, speaks of the many changes since peace broke out. But, complain republicans, most are security measures that would have been ordered if the IRA had been defeated, rather than concessions to a supposedly potent force.

Many republicans feel that the potential gains envisaged one year ago have not been fulfilled. Twelve months ago Sinn Fein was on a roll. Albert Reynolds, the then Taoiseach, was at one with Gerry Adams and prepared to press Sinn Fein's case with London. In contrast, Mr Reynolds' successor, John Bruton, is far less friendly with Sinn Fein. He won nationalist plaudits by attacking London last weekend, but Mr Bruton is by instinct anti-republican. He wants to woo the Unionists and has as a consequence cold-shouldered Sinn Fein, thereby alienating Mr Adams.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that republican frustration is about to persuade the IRA to unpack its stores of Semtex. Mr Adams has demonstrated no desire for a return to the killing. He seems to have accepted some time ago that military victory was not achievable in Ulster. Were he to lead his troops back into battle, he would lose whatever influence Sinn Fein has acquired over the past two years in Dublin and Washington.

Additionally, no matter how slowly politicians go about the task of creating long-term agreement, there is little community pressure for the Provisionals to restart their campaign. This is not 1969, when Catholics were being burned out of their homes and the IRA was expected to play a protective role.

So, with the IRA likely to remain confined to barracks, can we stop worrying about a return to violence? Probably. It is now quite possible to imagine a lengthy period, perhaps even years, in which an absence of violence continues in Northern Ireland, despite a lack of political development. This is a prospect that few commentators would have predicted back in September 1994, when the IRA laid down its weapons. At that stage most people, notably within the British government, thought the cease-fires would soon falter.

The receding threat of violence may indeed be allowing John Major the luxury of not pressing ahead quickly with developing a political settlement. His key concern right now may not be to bolster peace with political change but to make sure that talks begin only when conditions are right. This is a delicate task. The history of all-party discussions in Northern Ireland is of boycott by at least some of the main players. And even if discussions do get going, they usually collapse in acrimony.

Mr Major has probably accepted that Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists would not attend an all-party conference, at least until it was well under way. But he must persuade David Trimble, the recently-elected leader of the more moderate Ulster Unionists, to come on board. Talks without him would be a waste of time.

It may therefore serve Mr Major's purposes to delay all-party talks as long as possible, so that Mr Trimble can be persuaded to join the process and stick with it.

All of this analysis suggests the slow rate of progress in Northern Ireland should not necessarily be seen as provoking a crisis in the higher reaches of the IRA and hence an outbreak of killing. But there is an important risk from delay. A peace that was not underpinned by political change would to some extent be unstable. There is a danger that it could be vulnerable to breakdown, brought about not by the IRA but by an unfortunate conjunction of events that had no single author.

Last summer, Ulster offered a glimpse of these dangers. There were the riots over the early release of Private Lee Clegg, who had been convicted of murdering a Catholic joy rider. A head-on confrontation between nationalists and unionists followed about an Orange march through a Catholic part of Portadown. As disturbances escalated there, and in riots on Belfast's Ormeau Road, it was possible to see how Northern Ireland might once again descend, almost accidentally, into a spiral of violence.

Everyone knows that the last time communal disturbances got out of hand and turned into the Troubles, it took 25 years before all the participants stopped the killing. The risk of such an unplanned deterioration should, as much as the thinking of the IRA's military command, preoccupy those politicians who think they can delay settling Northern Ireland's constitutional future.