Out of the Irish cul-de-sac

John Major has become the latest obstacle to all-party talks
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The British government's reaction to last week's Mitchell report on decommissioning of paramilitary arms has been greeted in nationalist Ireland with a combination of incredulity and anger. To many people in Britain, in turn, this seems an excessive, even perverse, response to what has been presented as a simple proposal to hold a democratic election in Northern Ireland. As so often in the past, a gulf of misunderstanding now divides our two peoples.

The Mitchell commission has been widely seen as a means of getting the British government off its self-imposed hook of requiring a start to arms decommissioning as a precondition for the commencement of all-party talks - a precondition the IRA had never been prepared to concede. If the Mitchell recommendations enabled this precondition to be bypassed, the way would be clear to implement the solemnly agreed "firm aim" of the two governments to initiate - by the end of February - all-party talks in which Sinn Fein would be included.

The immediate Irish reaction to the Mitchell report was enthusiastic because it seemed to show a way through the deadlock that for almost 18 months had held up negotiations towards a Northern Ireland settlement. The report recognised explicitly that "the reality with which all concerned must deal [is that] decommissioning prior to such negotiations ... will not happen", and recommended instead that the parties "should affirm their total and absolute commitment" to six democratic principles.

These principles (see below) were particularly welcomed in Ireland because for the first time they would pin down Sinn Fein, and through it the IRA, to a totally democratic agenda, free of the ambiguities that have hitherto marked all utterances from these sources. When taken in conjunction with a proposal for some decommissioning during the negotiating process - instead of at the end of it, as Sinn Fein had sought to insist - these principles seemed a potentially acceptable substitute for the unrealistic precondition that decommissioning should start before the talks began.

Difficult though it might be for Sinn Fein and the IRA to swallow this unpalatable Mitchell package, the initial positive-sounding reaction to the report from Gerry Adams - in advance of John Major's own statement last Thursday - seemed to suggest that he believed this might be possible.

Most Irish people see the Prime Minister's statement, just four hours after the report was published, as having let Sinn Fein off the Mitchell hook by ignoring the report's tough recommendations and instead introducing a fresh precondition to all-party talks, viz the implementation of the Ulster Unionist Party's proposal for Northern Ireland elections.

The Irish government is, of course, prepared to discuss this election proposal during the all-party talks. What the Irish government is not prepared to accept is that the governments' jointly agreed "firm aim" of starting talks at the end of February should be subverted by making the time-consuming implementation of such an electoral process a precondition for the start of these talks.

Within the all-party framework the Irish side would want to tease out several problems and dangers that could arise from the establishment of an elected body in Northern Ireland at this stage. These include the potentially adversarial character, and capacity for filibustering, of an elected body set up as a negotiating instrument; the likelihood that elections could fail to provide representation for small parties close to loyalist paramilitaries; and the possibility that within such an elected body an attempt might be made by Unionists to wrest control of the North/South strand of the all-party negotiations from the two governments, with a view to blocking North/South co-operation.

An attempt has been made to suggest that the introduction of this fresh delaying precondition for all-party talks is compatible with, or even part of, the Mitchell recommendations. But this is simply not true.

The report's only reference to elections in Northern Ireland is confined to the carefully worded statement that "if it were broadly acceptable, with an appropriate mandate, and within the three-strand structure, an elective process could contribute to the building of confidence".

Despite a belated attempt by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on Monday to suggest that the British government has "accepted all the recommendations in the Mitchell report", the fact is that for the moment at least it has rejected them - a point which Sir Patrick Mayhew himself had inadvertently conceded in the Commons last Thursday when he justified the Government's stance on the grounds that "I happen to know that Unionists will not be there on the terms that have been put forward by Mitchell" (my emphasis).

Where can we go from here? There seem to be some grounds for believing that the British government may not initially have intended to take such a negative position on the Mitchell recommendation. It seems the original intention may have been for the Secretary of State to make a holding statement in the Commons last Wednesday. The Prime Minister's decision to make a more definitive statement himself may have been precipitated by fears of reactions within his own party to a damaging leak of the commission's report to a Dublin paper from a London correspondent. This was accompanied by speculation that unhelpfully presented the anticipated British government acceptance of the Mitchell recommendations as a "climbdown".

If in fact the British government's reaction to the report was motivated by short-term considerations of this kind rather than being the fruit of considered strategy, then second thoughts might open the way for some modification of its apparent new election precondition to the start of the all-party talks.

The British government will certainly be under strong American pressure to find some way out of this new cul-de-sac as, indeed, has already been suggested by Mr Mitchell's statement after his meeting with President Clinton on Monday that "The President

A possible way ahead would be for the Mitchell principles to be accepted by all, and for talks involving all the parties to take place soon on the issue of a possible role for an electoral process. Then, if some progress could be made with this proposal, all-party talks on the actual issues could start at the end of February, accompanied, as suggested by the Mitchell report, by some decommissioning of arms.

The writer was Prime Minister of Ireland from 1981 to 1987.

The six principles of the Mitchell commission

We recommend that the parties to such negotiations affirm their total and absolute commitment:

to democratic and peaceful means of resolving political issues;

to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;

to agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;

to renounce for themselves, and oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;

to agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree; and

to urge that "punishment" killings and beatings stop and take effective steps to prevent such actions.