LETTER: Other routes to Ulster peace

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The Independent Online
From Mr Stephen Plowden

Sir: The impasse about decommissioning arms is unfortunate, but it does help to raise a question that perhaps should have been looked at before. Are all-party negotiations the right way to make progress in Northern Ireland? Dialogue is essential, but the prospects of all-party negotiations reaching agreement, even if they could be started, never looked very bright. There are alternatives.

The British government could continue to talk individually with the political parties, who could also talk directly with each other. The discussions could include both the Workers' Party and the smaller Unionist parties. These parties lack the degree of electoral support needed to participate in formal negotiations, but they represent important points of view and have shown encouraging signs of fresh thinking.

It is also important to allow a voice to people who are not party activists or who may have no party allegiance. The Opsahl Commission produced a wealth of ideas and suggestions from private citizens, peace groups and many other organisations. The Commission's procedure did not, however, allow the authors of the various submissions to discuss and negotiate with each other. That is what is needed now.

In 1985, the Policy Studies Institute, in co-operation with various peace groups in Northern Ireland, organised a series of discussion groups, each involving people from different backgrounds. The groups all worked to the same agenda, which was concerned with the various causes of friction between the communities and what could be done to alleviate them. Unionist anger about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was negotiated over their heads, made it impossible to continue this work beyond the pilot stage; but the pilot discussions themselves were more successful and productive than many people had thought possible.

The agenda for the discussions would certainly be different now. Perhaps it should consist of different ideas for a constitutional settlement. But the basic idea seems worth reviving. Would some university, research institute or peace group be prepared to take it on?

Yours faithfully,

Stephen Plowden

London, NW1

7 September