Dialogue of paramilitaries

There must be no preconditions to all-party talks in Northern Ireland, says Mitchel McLaughlin
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The Independent Online
The invitation from the Liberal Democrats to attend their conference in Glasgow is a welcome opportunity to present the Sinn Fein analysis to the representatives of one of the main political parties in Britain. It is also pleasing to see Sinn Fein and representatives of the Unionist community addressing the same forum, and it is to be hoped that this is a precursor for meaningful debate and dialogue among all those in Ireland who wish to achieve a resolution of the conflict in my country.

Every example of a stable society provides confirmation that the only way out of conflict is through dialogue that will lead eventually to confidence and trust. In Ireland also, negotiations will be built upon such trust, the eventual product of which will be agreement on political structures based upon the authority of the people of Ireland. In the course of such discussions, many complex questions will have to be addressed and resolved. For example, the decommissioning of weapons, the release of prisoners of the conflict and the degree to which society in the North has been militarised over the past 25 years.

Therefore, the overreaching objective of everyone must be to arrive at the conference table. Such is the inevitable logic of Sinn Fein's involvement in the "peace process". I believe that (in contrast to the Official Unionist Party and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party) both of the loyalist "fringe" parties are, in fact, strongly committed to such dialogue. It is a matter of deepest regret to Sinn Fein that this dialogue has not significantly progressed over the past year, primarily because of the fall-out from the British Government's fool-hardy pursuit of a "token" surrender from the IRA.

In the interests of an accurate perspective on the refusal of the two larger Unionist parties to participate in the peace process, it is crucial to acknowledge that there has never been such dialogue at any time throughout the history of partition in the north of Ireland. Nor does it serve the cause of "consent" and "democracy " to ignore the roles of successive British governments (Tory and Labour) in colluding with such anti-democratic attitudes.

Sinn Fein has consistently argued that the consent and allegiance of the Unionist community is essential to secure a peace settlement. The Unionist politicians who have never, under the existing political arrangements, had to learn the skills (and thrills) of negotiating relationships with those who are also domiciled on the island of Ireland will need to learn, in the interests of the peace process, a more accommodating form of language.

Ian Paisley will have to recognise that shouting "Never, never, never!" is a totally inadequate means of representing the interests of his community; and David Trimble, despite his comments at the 12 July stand- off at Drumcree, must be prepared to accept the concept of compromise.

The present British Government, by its demand for a surrender of IRA weapons as a precondition to all-party talks and by its assertion that the Unionist parties will have a veto over the commencement of such negotiations, is, in effect, encouraging Unionist intransigence. Such a veto would deny the people of Ireland a democratic right to negotiate collectively an agreed future.

The balance must be tilted towards the positive power of consent, of considering consent, of negotiating consent. If the Unionist leadership's resistance to inclusive dialogue, which is consistent with its opposition to change, is elevated to a veto, then negotiations will never happen because one precondition will follow another.

There have been encouraging indications that within the Unionist community there is a questioning of the old traditional political positions. There is also tangible evidence that the "not an inch" attitude of its political leadership is a less than accurate reflection of the aspirations or the mood within the present-day Unionist community. Few Unionists really trust the British Government, and many would accept that far-reaching change is both necessary and inevitable.

It is therefore unlikely that once all-party talks are convened, the Unionist leadership will remain permanently outside a genuine process of negotiation. The Irish and British governments have a duty urgently to convene all-party talks as we enter the second year of an absence of war on our streets.

A cessation is not a peace settlement. A peace settlement requires talks and negotiation. This is the essential next step in the process of building lasting peace.

The writer is chairman of Sinn Fein.