Let us delay full talks no longer

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The Independent Online
The clearest single message from the report by the international body on decommissioning is that we must banish fear and rebuild trust and confidence. At each stage of the peace process, trust has been more important than any particular issue: apparently insoluble problems with words like "permanent" and "clarification" have been solved. The ceasefires themselves - which most people thought unachievable - were achieved because trust had been built.

Senator Mitchell and his colleagues have touched the very heart of the problem when they say that the decommissioning issue is merely a symptom of the absence of trust. My hope is that both governments and all parties will see in the report a clear opportunity to make up the ground that has been lost and to move towards inclusive all-party talks.

I have always held that decommissioning before talks was unacceptable. Perhaps more pertinently, I have always felt it was unobtainable. And it was never agreed or accepted that it would be a precondition for the starting of talks.

That said, the suggestion in the report that some forms of decommissioning could take place by agreement as part of the talks process would be a valuable confidence-building measure, which could prove the bina fides of all parties concerned and speed the process of rebuilding trust. Only with a resumption of dialogue will that happen.

My view on the need for inclusive dialogue has always been direct and uncluttered: while dialogue is taking place there can be no excuse in any quarter for a return to violence or killing; the report endorses this view in the clearest terms.

Looking on in recent months, my single greatest fear has been that the delay, the inactivity and the vacuum created would put an unnecessary strain on an already strained process. We have seen peace being jeopardised; we have seen pragmatism being replaced by dogmatism and the result has been disquieting.

The spectre of violence has begun to creep back in. And such a discouraging trend can only go in one direction if it is not stopped. A return to the table and a resumption of real dialogue is the only way to prevent the ugly possibility of a return to violence and to work out a just and lasting settlement in a totally democratic and exclusively peaceful manner. The commission's report points out everything in that direction and no other.

If any side sees in the recommendations further cause for stalling, sees them as another obstacle, then a serious question must hang over their commitment to finding a solution.

One thing I know in my heart is that people throughout Ireland and Britain want a continuation of the normal life they are now enjoying - normal life which was absent for 25 years. I know that people never want to see a return to killing, maiming and sorrow. And no one will thank or respect either government - or any party - if they allow surmountable difficulties to threaten peace. No one could expect all their views to prevail in this report, and that has not happened. All sides must expect to compromise and to leave behind past historical positions in order to create the environment for all-party talks. I believe there is sufficient here for both governments and all sides to go along with. And I would deplore any attempt to substitute one precondition with another, which appears to be the present position of the British government. Of course, an elected assembly can be on the agenda for debate at all-party talks.

The steps to peace were enshrined in the Downing Street declaration when we spoke about achieving peace, stability and reconciliation through a process of dialogue and co-operation. We need a return to the trust which brought about that focus and clarity. It is time to start the inclusive dialogue with everything on the table and everybody at the table.

The writer was prime minister of Ireland, 1992-94