Leading Article: The politics of peace

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The Independent Online
DESPITE the dance that continues around the word 'permanent' it seems likely that the British and Irish governments will in fact start counting the required 90 days of peace in Ireland from about now. Gerry Adams has come as near as he probably dares to giving the required assurances.

The next 90 days will not be spent passively waiting to see whether violence has really ended in Northern Ireland. The political process that led up to the ceasefire will continue to develop the delicate triangular relationship that links the British and Irish governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland. Meetings between British and Irish civil servants on constitutional matters will in any case continue. Bilateral talks between the British government and the political parties of Northern Ireland will also be kept in being in the hope of eventually getting the parties together again. Meanwhile Albert Reynolds is going ahead with his 'Forum for Peace and Reconciliation' that will bring Sinn Fein into the process almost immediately.

A delicate balance will have to be maintained between doing nothing and doing too much. Inactivity, or the appearance of it, would create a vacuum into which would be sucked all the fantasies of those who hope for too much or expect too little. The talks must therefore remain reasonably visible and informative. But if they seem to be doing too much, or going too far, they will reignite suspicions on both sides that would make the resumption of violence more likely. They would undermine the whole point of the ceasefire, which is to create an atmosphere of trust in which it is possible to reach agreements that are now unattainable.

In pursuing the right balance, flexibility and imagination will be required. The British government believes that any new arrangements must be built from the top down, starting with the sort of broad framework set out in the Downing Street declaration and moving down to more detailed agreements. Its thinking is that only within such a framework will people feel secure enough to accept the give and take that will be required at lower levels.

There is, however, a case, for also doing some spadework at the grass roots. Since direct rule was imposed on Northern Ireland in the early Seventies, the 26 directly elected local councils have been granted only minimal powers over sport, burials, garbage removal, tourist promotion and community relations. Authority over more important matters such as housing, education and town planning has remained in London.

Yet it is at the local level that power-sharing, promoted by London as a model for the future democratic government of Northern Ireland, has become a reality. In the 1993 elections the number of councils in which it operates rose from 11 to 15. On the whole it works. Britain might, therefore, do worse than spend some of the next 90 days building up the confidence and profile of these small, weak prototypes of the co-operation on which Northern Ireland's future will depend. Democratic government is more likely to work there if it avoids the over-centralisation that has been imposed on the rest of the United Kingdom.