ANOTHER VIEW Arms remain the key

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The Independent Online
"No talks between government ministers and the Provisionals until the decommissioning of weapons is significantly under way": the message from the Government over the months has been clear.

Reports of Sir Patrick Mayhew's comments in the US caused concern in Tory ranks. Was HMG retreating? Need there be only a token decommissioning before ministers began talks in earnest?

The reports were misleading, it transpired, but the jitters had set in. Attention was focused on the realities and dangers of the fragile peace process. It brought latent fears to the surface. We had made all the concessions: the Provisionals had made none. We had lifted the broadcasting ban and exclusion orders. Military activity had been downgraded. We had allowed the exploratory dialogue to begin.

Meanwhile, the IRA maintains its full terrorist capability, continues to identify potential targets, raise funds to maintain its operations, recruits and trains and continues to terrorise the community.

Why should we remain neutral over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland while Dublin was a "persuader" for a United Ireland? How did we square this with our strident Unionism in Scotland?

The framework document posed problems. "What's OK by Jim Molyneaux must be OK by us," had so often been Conservative Unionists' guiding principle. But Jim Molyneaux rejected the framework document. What now?

Back to fundamentals. The Government has got it right. The Downing Street Declaration, with its emphasis on consent and the majority determining the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, is right.

It was right to begin the exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein: to explore how they could play a full democratic role, and in time enter full dialogue and decommission their weapons of war.

It is right that before ministers go further, Sinn Fein demonstrates how this will accelerate the process - and there must be progress on decommissioning.

The Government must not be deflected. Nor do I believe it will be. The two traditions in Northern Ireland must accommodate each other with parity of esteem. This will not be achieved by appeasement.

The Provisionals do not yet accept the Downing Street Declaration. They seek to negotiate without giving an inch, still believing in a United Ireland, imposed, if needs be, on the North. Sinn Fein/IRA hopes that, with help from Dublin and Washington, the UK can be made to dilute its commitment to Northern Ireland; if not, failed talks can be blamed on HMG's intransigence.

When the IRA declared its ceasefire it was neither war weary nor militarily defeated; it had lost neither the "armed struggle" nor its appetite for it. The IRA has changed its tactics, not its objectives.

The Government's task is full of danger. There is a long way to go yet, but a good start has been made. Those of us who are Unionists need not despair.

The writer is Conservative MP for Basingstoke.