What are the options for peace?

Referendum, not election, will bring the parties back to the table, says John Hume
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The IRA attack on London has been a bitter blow, not just to the people of London but to all the people of Britain and Ireland. The past 17 months gave us more than a glimpse of how things could and should be. The desire for peace in Ireland and good relations between our divided people, and between the people of Britain and Ireland, has been overwhelming. This latest atrocity cannot be allowed to destroy the hopes of our peoples for the future.

This, however, is no time to despair. The ill-conceived gloating of the "I told you so" sceptics is distasteful. It is a time for careful analysis. Looking at all the various theories, demands, shopping lists of preconditions and proposals on offer, it is, in fact, possible to distil the essence of a successful peace process.

There are only two absolutely essential criteria, all the others are merely preferences or wish lists. First, the Republican movement must accept once and for all that violence is not acceptable; it is not an optional extra in the political toolkit. The Mitchell Report spelled this out and it is unfortunate that the opportunity to drive the point home was wasted through the Government's handling of the report.

Second, all those parties who are serious about creating a lasting peace have to accept that all-party talks (involving all those who renounce violence as an instrument of political strategy) are necessary as soon as possible. The issue is now very simple and cannot be evaded. Peace means all-party talks.

No one underestimates the difficulties of such talks, even though most parties accept, in principle, that they will be necessary eventually. Many in all parties will find it difficult to sit down to negotiate, especially when they may well be asked to talk to people who have been associated with the advocacy of violence in the past. But it should not be forgotten that the nationalist community has also suffered grievously at the hands of paramilitaries of all persuasions. Our experience of injustice and discrimination within Northern Ireland is also a reality that appears to have been forgotten. But sitting down to talk is inescapable if we are to create a lasting peace.

The crucial question is, of course, how do we get to the conference table? The idea of an election has been suggested. Unfortunately, an election has serious drawbacks, not least of which would be the fact that it would confuse, rather than clarify, matters. Elections in Northern Ireland have always created tensions rather than relieved them. While some may see an election as a door, I suspect it may be a perpetually revolving door. Such an election would also be flawed insofar as it would not seriously address the problem of ensuring that the Republican movement commits itself to purely peaceful methods.

But, clearly, there is a rational kernel in the Unionist case, as Mr Trimble and his colleagues believe they require some form of popular mandate in order to take part in all-party talks. At the same time, Republicans must be shown that the only mandate the people of Ireland are prepared to give them is to take part in exclusively democratic and peaceful politics.

Combining these two complementary requirements, I have suggested that both governments consider the option of a referendum, North and South, in order that the relevant mandates can be created. Our citizens would be asked two questions. First, are you in favour of a total cessation of violence? Second, are you in favour of all-party talks? The referendum should be held as soon as possible.

This is not a panacea; difficult questions would continue to be faced by all the parties in the negotiations. Agendas would have to be agreed. But it would provide a much-needed stimulus to the peace process and create the conditions for a lasting peace in which our political institutions would be acceptable to all.

A referendum would prove more advantageous than an election for a number of reasons. Speed is an obvious advantage. It would avoid all the diversions and confusions of an election: the rivalries between and within parties, the parochial considerations and the personal ties that often make it difficult to assess the real meaning of an election.

In addition, a referendum would give a voice to the thousands who do not identify with any party. Above all, a referendum would reorder and clarify the choices available to us.

An election would, inevitably, be dominated by the question of preferred constitutional options. But that is not what we need most at the moment. We all know the preferred options. It is more important to begin talks so that we can identify the feasible options.

To call an election now would be to put a confused horse in front of a divided cart. A referendum would have the virtue of clarity. The major political questions would be clear and the choices would be clear-cut. Instead of a parade of parties there would be a poll for peace.

Such a referendum would have a powerful impact on the peace process. It would unite, rather than divide, our people. Unmediated by parties or politicians, our citizens would have a full say in determining the future of the peace process. The massive longing for peace in our islands could be translated into a strong political voice. It is time to let the people speak.

The writer is MP for Foyle and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.