LETTERS: Act now on Irish peace talks, before election muddies the water

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sir: Your editorial "Another small step along the road to peace" (16 October) suggested that the electoral considerations of the Northern Ireland parties made further progress in the peace talks unlikely between now and a general election.

No one would dispute that the level of public support for the parties is important to all concerned, but so is the level of public support for peace. It would be in the clear interest of all to make as much progress as possible before general election campaigning forces public confrontations on the basis of moderates versus hard-liners.

Bi-partisanship in Westminster has helped to ensure that Labour is not vying with the Tories for positions on Northern Ireland. At worst it is portrayed as a competition on the basis of the commitment of the party leaders. Your editorial repeated this point. Having spent an hour on Wednesday talking with Tony Blair about the current state of progress in the talks I have no doubt of his interest and commitment.

Looking forward to a change of government, you are right to suggest that "Labour's base position is consent", but you overlook that we have always said that change is necessary. We know there is not consent for a united Ireland among unionists, but it is equally clear that the existing status does not have the consent of nationalists.

That is why we need new arrangements and structures that both communities can support. The status quo is not an option.

Our policy, as set out in New Labour, New Life for Britain, shows our commitment to reconciliation between the two communities, and unity of the peoples of Ireland. John Hume has emphasised for us all the value of thinking and talking in terms of people not territory. As he says, it's people who have rights. It's people who are divided.

We believe that reconciliation needs to be based on respect for each community's sense of allegiance - whether that is to Ireland or to Britain - which means, primarily, working to build agreement around institutions which all people can share and which both unionists and nationalists can support.

Labour argues that a new settlement needs to: embrace balanced constitutional change in Britain and Ireland; increase North-South co-operation as a matter of common sense to make the border less relevant; fully respect the identities and aspirations of both traditions; and provide for a strong, devolved assembly based upon proportional representation.

To help underpin the process of change, we have to build confidence too. Given the opportunity, there are some important things Labour will do to help this, such as: incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our law; consulting with the parties on a home-grown bill of rights; taking steps to make the police more accountable and representative; toughening up the fair employment legislation; and taking decisive action to reduce tension over the parades.

For now, we are calling on all parties to take an extra step forward. That's why I visited loyalist prisoners in the Maze prison. I welcome the step taken by David Trimble in visiting them. The maintenance of the loyalist ceasefire is an essential element in making progress.

And the restoration of the IRA ceasefire is crucial too. You suggest that progress is being made in the absence of Sinn Fein and that is true. But it cannot be unconditionally excluded from the process. That would only strengthen the hand of the militarists.

The IRA has to call a ceasefire and Sinn Fein has to show its commitment to peace and democracy in word and deed. If they do, both governments should continue to say that there is a place for them at the talks.


Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary

House of Commons

London SW1