Dialogue of the paramilitaries

Compromises must be made over the decommissioning of arms in order to start talks
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The Independent Online
The peace process is in crisis! How many times have you heard this? I have been hearing it every week for the past year. It seems each time a dog barks in the street in Belfast, it is a threat to the ceasefires. Perhaps many of our political representatives should recall the fable about the boy who cried wolf. It would be true to say, however, that the peace process is undergoing some serious difficulties, and we have, I believe, reached the most critical stage of the process so far.

The obstacle of decommissioning has been the main cause of the current political gridlock and there is no backing down in sight from Sinn Fein, the Unionist Party nor the Government. The Government insists that decommissioning is the key to the door of all-party talks. The Unionist Party has the Government's arm up its back on this issue, and the election of David Trimble as its new leader is perhaps an indication of the mood within the party itself, though not necessarily the Unionist community.

Each participant has contributed to the collision course that this issue has created. How can we navigate a route out of these troubled waters? The core issue, as I see it, is not the arms themselves; it is the fear and distrust that surround their retention. Mitchel McLaughlin has rightly pointed out that whether the IRA has 95 per cent of its arms or 100 per cent is an irrelevance. Of course, a "gesture" from the paramilitaries will not reduce their capability for a return to warfare. However, the refusal to deal with the arms issue satisfactorily is fuelling genuine fears within the wider community about the commitment of the paramilitaries to exclusively peaceful methods. This is the crucial element that must be addressed.

There is little trust in our divided society. Trust can be best built by proving to each other, through dialogue, each side's commitment, integrity and worth. Such trust will be the glue that holds the peace process together during the difficult times negotiations will inevitably bring. But we are held back from dialogue by the scarcity of trust. The community needs an injection of confidence to prod the process into action again.

Arms decommissioning should not be a brick wall against progress, but neither can the issue be ignored. The most fundamental concern about the peace process is its permanency. The bona fides of those who switched off the violence are under question. The community fears that we could switch it on again at any given time.

I have a responsibility as a political representative of loyalist paramilitarism to recognise this legitimate concern. The IRA and Sinn Fein have done nothing to address the feelings within my community. Their unwillingness to compromise is seen as evidence that they are prepared to drive the agenda. They are seen as saying that the only way is the IRA way.

On 25 August of this year, the Combined Loyalist Military Command, which is the umbrella organisation of the loyalist paramilitary groupings, stated that it was committed to finding a settlement through exclusively political means. It sought to reassure the nationalist community that the loyalist paramilitaries would not initiate a return to conflict, by saying that there would be "no first strike". There has been no such gesture from the IRA. The republicans suffer a peculiar type of blindness to my community. If they are genuine about peace, then they must address this critical issue.

The symbolic significance of physically handing over weapons in any quantity is a serious obstacle for either set of paramilitaries. Gerry Adams suggests that he has no manoeuvrability on the decommissioning of arms, and I tend to believe that the physical handover of weapons at this stage is impossible, but the gesture necessary is not one of a surrender, it is one of confidence-building.

Adams has talked of "critical compromises" being necessary, yet he has refused to make any. He must ensure that republicans cease to abdicate their obligation to the peace process and that their commitment is proved. By the same token, David Trimble should use his new-found mandate to help his party adjust to what is possible in the present circumstances. The process should not fall through intransigence.

The writer is leader of the Ulster Democratic Party.

Mitchel McLaughlin and Gary McMichael will be discussing `Common Ground in Northern Ireland' at a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting tonight in Glasgow. This will be the first time that republican and unionist representatives of paramilitaries will be sharing a platform.

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