Voices of Ulster in search of peace

Threats have no place in the talks
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The Independent Online
The people of Ulster are delighted that we have had a year without major violence. That, and the consequent scaling down of security measures, has enhanced everyone's quality of life. It is more than most, myself included, expected a year ago.

However, many Protestants remain understandably sceptical. There have been at least two paramilitary murders (one admitted, the other not), scores of arson attacks, more than 100 petrol bomb incidents, a number of riots and hundreds of paramilitary beatings. All this is topped by Gerry Adams's recent obscene boast, with its implied threat, that the IRA has not gone away. Ulster folk can tell the difference between the current uneasy, uncertain ceasefire and a permanent peace.

It is said that there is an impasse in the "peace process" on the issue of the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. Unionists are asked: "How much decommissioning do you insist on before moving into talks?" This, I think, is the wrong question. The key issue was spelt out in the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993. That required parties associated with terrorism to "establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods" in order to move into normal politics.

Clearly establishing a commitment to peaceful methods comes before full participation in the political process. This was underlined by the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, on the very day the declaration was published. He said: "We are talking about a permanent cessation of violence and we are talking about a handing-up of arms." On 1 June 1994 Mr Spring drove the point home: "There can be no participation by Sinn Fein-IRA in the political discussions ... until they have made a firm commitment that violence has ended."

Mr Spring's position today seems to be that a year's ceasefire has changed matters. But the past year, welcome as it is, does not justify tearing out a central plank of the Downing Street Declaration, especially when Sinn Fein-IRA continue to hint that the ceasefire might break down. Such hints are an implied threat of renewed violence and show that Sinn Fein are not committed to "exclusively peaceful methods". Peaceful methods do not include the threat of violence.

Essentially, this is the same question that we had a year ago when the "complete cessation of military operations" was announced. Then, we asked if it was intended to be permanent. In the absence of an answer the Government decide to travel hopefully, perhaps expecting that the matter would be resolved. The Dublin nationalist forum should have been used by democratic nationalists to bring home these realities to Sinn Fein-IRA, but unfortunately Dublin and the SDLP funked this. Today the future intentions of the IRA remain shrouded in ambiguity. That, and their insistence on the retention of arms, must cause concern.

If this is a problem for the "peace process", it is a problem that Sinn Fein can easily resolve. The insistence by the British government and by three of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland on the resolution of this problem cannot threaten the "peace process". The Government is not going to initiate violence, and neither will either the Unionist Party or the Alliance Party. Loyalist paramilitaries have disclaimed any intention of a first strike and offered to match the IRA in decommissioning. Everyone waits for Sinn Fein-IRA to summon up the courage to move and to commit themselves irrevocably to peace and the democratic process.

We will continue to travel hopefully. We are glad to see both governments examining proposals we made nine months ago for an international commission to oversee decommissioning. We hope Sinn Fein will realise that threats of violence will not work and that it will put away any thoughts of resumption its campaign.

Unfortunately the Government has given in to Sinn Fein demands, which we regard as Dublin's estimate of Sinn Fein's minimum demand for constitutional change in return for a continuing ceasefire. These concessions created an expectation that the cry that "the peace process is in danger" will produce fresh concessions. If the support that we are entitled to expect from the Irish and US governments was forthcoming, this task could be accomplished and we could be more confident that we are experiencing real peace, not a temporary ceasefire.

Hamish McRae's column will appear tomorrow.