Outside No10: Sinn Fein and the British state are the main players

‘Peace’ process settlement near

Despite the bombs Sinn Fein will be back in the talks in time to hear the final proposals

The Northern Ireland ‘peace’ process hit fresh snags last week. Two bombs shook the Six Counties within hours of confirmation by the British and Irish governments of Sinn Fein’s suspension from the all-party talks.

The IRA denied responsibility for both blasts and specifically ruled out the possibility that its volunteers had cooperated in any way with the perpetrators - as had been alleged after previous bombs had been placed by the Continuity Army Council.

Officially SF has been “excluded” permanently from the main negotiations following the allegations by Royal Ulster Constabulary chief constable Ronnie Flanagan that the IRA had been responsible for two recent killings. But Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam made it clear that SF could expect to be back in the talks by March 9 - just as the Ulster Democratic Party has now been readmitted after its own month-long suspension.

Continuing the pretence of defending the “integrity of the talks”, which supposedly exclude those groups which do not commit themselves to using “exclusively peaceful” means, Mowlam stated that over the next couple of weeks SF must provide a “convincing demonstration in word and deed that a complete, unqualified and unequivocal IRA ceasefire is being fully and continuously observed”. In reality of course, the whole process depends on an agreement to end republican armed resistance being reached between SF/IRA and the British state.

SF leaders appeared to be genuinely furious at their exclusion. But they too went along with the pretence that they are not totally committed to the ‘peace’ process through negotiations with Britain. Having fought tooth and nail to prevent his party’s exclusion, SF president Gerry Adams now states that his party might not return to the “flawed” talks at all. He spoke of the strong feelings in the nationalist community, but added significantly: “I appeal to everyone to channel their anger and frustration into calm and disciplined protest.”

Adams said that it was “disgraceful” that the governments had made their move without waiting for the result of legal proceedings taken in the Irish courts to halt the exclusion. Subsequently the party decided to abandon its legal action. The application to the courts had stated that SF “had not dishonoured” the Mitchell ‘principles’ of democracy and nonviolence, and had “at all times worked to achieve a lasting peace”.

This seemed to be confirmed by the two governments, who, in their joint statement announcing SF’s suspension, acknowledged “the very significant and genuine efforts which have been made, and are being made, by Sinn Fein in working for peace”.

Nevertheless both governments, as well as SF, must continue to act out their respective parts in order to keep most of the other players on board, so reducing the possibility of the process being wrecked through lack of sufficient consensus. Of major importance in this regard are the unionists.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, for example, reacted to the second blast in Portadown - part of his own parliamentary constituency - with what amounts to a call for agreement to be reached solely between the unionists and the two governments. “I have no doubt that this is the work of the IRA,” he said of the blast, without the slightest hint of proof. But of course he is playing to his audience. “There can be no question now of [Sinn Fein] returning to the talks,” he added rather pathetically.

Trimble’s public face is very different from his private one however. Earlier in the week he had held talks with Irish opposition party leaders in the Dail and one of them commented: “The impression we got was that [the unionists] acknowledge Sinn Fein would be back within a couple of weeks.”

Adams himself was also in Dublin for talks with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. In addition SF continued to press for urgent talks with Tony Blair. These developments serve to confirm that the ‘peace’ process is very much on track, a sentiment endorsed by former US senator George Mitchell, who is chairing the all-party talks. Although he confessed to being disappointed that business had been held up, he added: “I am convinced that we’re going to get past this difficulty.”

And with good reason. The charade of hard bargaining with give and take on all sides is soon to be dropped. The two governments are expected to place their draft proposals for a settlement before all the participants by the beginning of April. SF will have to be won to give at least critical acquiescence to a final agreement, which the governments intend to put to a referendum on both sides of the border.

As May 1 is still the projected date for the referenda, and assuming at least three weeks would be needed to prepare for the ballot, that would leave at most one week for the talks participants to discuss, clarify and amend the proposals. A tall order, you might think - particularly as the UUP leaders have not yet been able to bring themselves to exchange words with SF.

However, the talks provide only the public manifestation of what is really happening in the continuous bilateral negotiations involving all the parties. Most important of all, of course, will be an implicit agreement between the UK government and Sinn Fein itself.

Jim Blackstock