Voices of Ulster in search of peace

How we can break the deadlock
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The Independent Online
The guns and bombs have been silent in Northern Ireland for nearly 12 months now. It is difficult to understand that we are still so far away, apparently, from starting all-party talks, or even agreeing an agenda. This stalemate must be broken now, and the vacuum that it has created be filled with political activity from both governments.

I was glad to see John Major in his interview last Thursday return again to the principles for proceeding which were laid down in the Downing Street Declaration. His commitment to inclusive talks to find a comprehensive political settlement and to the decommissioning of all arms is something everyone agrees with.

The review of prison sentencing has also been a slow starter with the British Government, but a small start has just been made by Sir Patrick Mayhew. We all appreciate the sensitivity of this issue to the victims of these horrible crimes. We can never forget people who paid a very high price for this peace, and those who are still paying, because their lives have been so damaged.

We cannot undo the past crimes, but we can and must prevent future ones. Critical and generous compromise will be required from everyone.

Society in both communities in Northern Ireland is saturated with arms. Everybody is agreed that the decommissioning of all arms is a crucial part of the overall process, to remove the fears in both communities of being left defenceless in a doomsday scenario. The memories of the past are not easy to set aside.

Confidence-building is required. I suggest a four-point plan to break the deadlock.

First, a satisfactory resolution of the "arms" and the "prisoners" issues should be made a prerequisite for a comprehensive political settlement.

Second, discussions on the modus operandi for the effective resolution of the arms issues can proceed in parallel with the main talks agenda.

Third, this group could be chaired by some eminent person from Scandinavia, the US or Canada. This will involve a prior commitment from all sides to decommissioning as a prerequisite to any agreement.

Fourth, the political philosophy of a one-sided symbolic surrender of arms, in advance of talks, simply won't work in Ireland. There is no historical precedent for handing up arms before talks start. This should be abandoned forthwith.

Dialogue that threatens nobody is the best insurance against resumption of the armed conflict. Dialogue that respects diversity and the identities of both traditions must be the way forward. Talks without deadlines or predetermined solutions should start soon after the Ulster Unionist Party elects a new leader.

Talking peace should not hold fears for Unionists. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation has shown that people who were poles apart can be brought closer together if the political will exists.

Too many people are talking down the peace process since it stalled some months ago. That period of stagnation has bred a return to street violence and to the indiscriminate burning of Catholic and Protestant churches, Orange and community halls. This is the price of political inactivity.

The past 12 months have demonstrated the personal and economic fruits of the peace process. Family life has returned to normality after 25 years of violence. Young people can go out and enjoy themselves at night without the fear of a sniper's bullet or a bomb taking their life, and parents can rest far more easily at home.

On the economic side, Ireland is beginning to reap the peace dividend. Ireland, North and South, is a more attractive location for international investment. More and more trade is developing between North and South. Tourism figures are reaching bonanza levels.

The European Union with its own support and financial package, can be put to work to offset the worst effects of the violence in the economically deprived areas of the North and of the border counties.

But the greatest benefit of all over the past 12 months has been that there are quite a large number of people both in Northern Ireland, and in mainland Britain, too, who are alive today because of the ceasefire.

There is no greater satisfaction for any politician than to have contributed to the saving of human life during his or her political career. That's what drove me to put peace in Ireland at the top of my political agenda, and there it stays. This is a historic opportunity not to be missed.