The trap in Sir Patrick's path

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The Independent Online
From the outset of the peace process, the Downing Street Declaration laid down that parties such as Sinn Fein had to establish a commitment to peaceful methods before talks. The Irish Prime Minister, Dick Spring, gave the reason in June when he said there was little point attempting to bring people into political dialogue if they could return to bombs and bullets if it doesn't work. Giving up bombs and bullets before talks sends a clear sign that Sinn Fein is turning its back on terrorism.

Unfortunately this requirement, which was originally agreed by the British and Irish governments and underwritten by the US government, is in danger of being eroded in two ways. The first is through the "twin-track" concept: that parallel to talks on decommissioning there should be a beginning to all-party talks on preliminary matters. The obvious danger here is that Sinn Fein will obstruct and slow down discussion in the first track while blurring the distinction between preliminary and substantive matters in the second track so as to pitch all parties into full talks while still possessing its guns and using them as a lever in the talks.

Sir Patrick Mayhew may have disclosed the second way the requirement to give up weapons may be in jeopardy at his press conference in Belfast on Tuesday. He said, "a commission might find some other means by which the necessary confidence can be generated". I suspect that elements in the Irish and US governments are planning that an international commission (without the word disarmament or decommissioning in the title) will be set in progress, that it will conduct some investigations and come back and report that it is satisfied with Sinn Fein's commitment to peace, and urge the commencement of talks on that basis. And then the British government will be pressurised into accepting such a report as a substitute for decommissioning. Sir Patrick's language may be walking him and us into the very trap that Dick Spring said a year ago would be intolerable.

Instead of allowing himself to be moved by these elements within the Irish and US governments, Sir Patrick should insist that the Irish government sticks to the Downing Street Declaration. It should remind the White House that it gave Sinn Fein permission at Easter to raise money in the US in the expectation that Sinn Fein would deliver on arms. Rather than tamely accepting Sinn Fein's reneging on that understanding, the White House ought to be persuading it to accept realities.

Many years ago a Sinn Fein leader declared that the organisation would take power with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other. What its members must accept is that no one will deal with them until they throw away the Armalite and trust exclusively to the ballot paper.

The writer is the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.