Leading Article: Message fading into the fog

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THE FUNDAMENTAL principle of the Anglo-Irish declaration was that negotiations would begin only after a period of peace. This assumption is now crumbling as 'clarifications' drag the process towards something perilously close to public negotiation.

The problem arises because John Major and Albert Reynolds are both trying to reassure their own constituencies. Whenever one does so he worries the other, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of the declaration. Mr Major, in the House of Commons, added a gloss intended to quieten the fears of the Unionists; Mr Reynolds responded on Sunday night with remarks addressed to Sinn Fein. Everyone is now demanding and offering clarifications, while the declaration recedes into the mist.

What Mr Reynolds said on Sunday night was in itself ordinary and harmless. He remarked that the time had come to demilitarise the Northern Ireland conflict, and hoped that both governments would be 'persuaders' for a new agreement on the future of the whole island. But the words he used have become heavily loaded. To Sinn Fein, demilitarisation means the departure of the British troops. To Unionists, a 'persuader' in this context is a British government bent on pushing them into a united Ireland.

Clarifications have since emerged from Dublin to the effect that the remark on demilitarisation was intended to refer to the IRA, and that persuasion is to be exercised on behalf of a new agreement, not unity as such. Meanwhile, however, Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, has demanded assurances that the process is intended to lead to the end of British rule in Ireland.

Mr Major and Mr Reynolds now need to make a clear decision. Either they continue to offer glosses and clarifications in the hope that each can nudge his constituency forward without driving the other back, or they must confine themselves to repeating the words of the declaration until everyone grows tired of asking questions about it. If there are points on which Sinn Fein genuinely needs clarification, both governments can reply privately after close consultation with each other.

The second option looks the more promising. The declaration was carefully crafted to balance the concerns of all parties. Tinkering with interpretations only weakens it. The political realities behind it are clear enough and will not be changed by nuances of wording.

Sinn Fein ought by now to understand that the British government and people would like to bring the troops home but cannot run away from their responsibilities to the Unionists. Nor can the Government announce a timetable until peace is assured. Therefore, the quickest way for Sinn Fein to achieve a British military withdrawal is to lay down its arms and show respect for the legitimate fears of the Unionists. The longer it prevaricates - and the more people are murdered - the further its goal recedes. Mr Major and Mr Reynolds should keep quiet while Sinn Fein attempts to come to terms with the obvious.