It's good to talk, Mr Major

John Hume sets out proposals to resolve the impasse over arms and get Northern Ireland talks moving
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The Independent Online
There has been peace on the streets of Northern Ireland now for almost 15 months. The entire atmosphere of our society has been transformed, particularly for the young people who have known nothing else over the last quarter of a century than the tension created by violence and conflict.

Dialogue, and dialogue alone, has brought us to where we are now, to the absence of violence on our streets. Dialogue is also the road to lasting stability, a stability which can only be based on agreement between our divided people. By definition, agreement can only be created by dialogue. The present impasse can therefore be resolved without any side being asked to take unacceptable risks.

When the peace process began with a dialogue between the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, and myself, the stated objectives were made clear, and publicly so. The first objective was a total cessation of violence. That has been achieved. The second objective was the establishment of all-party talks involving the two governments and all parties with the aim of finding an agreement among our divided people. Such an agreement would require the allegiance of all traditions. Such a process clearly poses no threat to any section of our people.

Both governments committed themselves to that process in the Downing Street Declaration, the document which brought about the cease-fires of 1994. The British government committed itself to "encouraging, enabling and facilitating agreement" among our divided people and to legislate for the outcome of any such agreement.

The declaration also rightly insisted that all parties be totally committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful methods. Since then Sinn Fein has made it clear that it is totally committed to peaceful methods and that, at the negotiating table, there would be no question of threats of any kind.

Having promised to promote an agreement among our divided people, what can the British government do to further that objective? The first obvious step is to set a date for all-party talks. That has not happened. Instead, a new pre-condition has emerged - the surrender of weapons. This issue was never mentioned by either government throughout the talks process before the ceasefires. It reveals a clear misunderstanding of the psychology of our situation. No party to the conflict wants to be seen to surrender, but all know that an agreement must be worked out.

Looking at the practicalities of our situation, most of the major parties in Ireland, north and south, had their origins in the accumulation of guns and the use of force. But where are those guns now? To whom were they surrendered? The arms question must obviously be settled, but the crucial point is that there must be a commitment not to use them and that their employment can no longer be contemplated.

The British government would have us believe that the Ulster Unionists would not come to the negotiating table in the absence of the surrender of arms. The policy of the Ulster Unionist Party is for it to decide, but like all parties it has to respond to political reality. Unionists now know that their initial suspicions of secret deals are completely unfounded. In addition, it has been made clear in a joint statement by Gerry Adams, by the Taoiseach at the time, Albert Reynolds, and myself, and later reiterated by the present Taoiseach, John Bruton, that the conflict in Ireland cannot be solved without the participation and the agreement of the Unionist people.

What is generally referred to as nationalist Ireland has made it clear that it is the people of Ireland who are divided, not the territory. A divided people can only be brought together by agreement. Any coercion cannot hope to succeed. Not only does the peace process pose no threat to Unionism, it is the best possible way for the Unionist people to secure their future. Relying on the protection of their identity by a British government they do not trust seems to me a less successful recipe than accepting the challenge of trusting themselves to come to an agreement with the people with whom they share a piece of earth.

No one should have any illusions that such talks would be easy, given the level of prejudice and distrust of the past that still influences us. No doubt such talks would take time. But we have already established that we can agree, while awaiting an eventual political agreement, on working together on our considerable common economic and social interests. Harnessing the enormous international goodwill which exists towards Northern Ireland, we can start building the trust that will help facilitate political agreement.

It would not be sufficient for us to criticise the British government if we do not offer a constructive way out of the impasse. My colleague Seamus Mallon and myself, with the agreement of Sinn Fein, put forward the following proposals to the Prime Minister for consideration by both governments. These proposals set out a parallel process for talks and arms.

First, the two governments should agree to launch the preparatory phase for all-party talks in the peace process which will, not later than 30 November, lead into substantive political negotiations, in round-table format, to reach an agreed political settlement.

The two governments should also agree to ask George Mitchell, the former US senator, to head up an international body to ascertain and advise the two governments on the commitment to peaceful and democratic methods of all political parties that will be participating in the round-table negotiations and consequently of their commitment to the removal of all weapons from Irish politics.

The international body should also be asked to ascertain and advise on how the question of arms, now thankfully silenced, can be finally and satisfactorily settled.

George Mitchell should be assisted by two other figures of international standing likely to inspire widespread confidence.

Accordingly, the international body should have the remit of reporting on whether it has established that a clear commitment exists on the part of the respective political parties to an agreed political settlement, achieved through democratic negotiations, and to the satisfactory resolution of the question of arms.

The international body should report to the two governments, which should undertake to consider carefully any recommendations it makes and to give them due weight.

These proposals seem to me to be ordinary common sense. Once again they threaten no one. We are at a historic moment in the history of Ireland when the gun can be taken out of our politics forever, when lasting stability can be created for the first time in our history, and when an agreement can be reached among our divided people. Such an agreement is the only basis for lasting stability and it should therefore be the top priority of everyone, governments above all.

Bringing about a peaceful resolution will be a major political and historical success. It is really asking too much to expect some vision and to ask for a starting date for all-party talks? I am convinced that such an action would be overwhelmingly endorsed by Parliament and the British people.

John Hume MP is leader of the SDLP.