Governments aim to break impasse

by Bobbie Heatley

It was a foregone conclusion that the Weston Park talks would fail. Why then did the British and Irish governments go ahead with them? A benign explanation for the waste of time and tax-payers' money is that hope springs eternal.

Blair and Ahern tried to put a good face on it by saying the issues had been clarified. Anyone who needed clarification had not been taking much interest in the north of Ireland of late. Even so, the media gave them brownie points for their efforts.

A less benign, but not cynical, explanation is that it was a final attempt, in an all-party talks format, to pressurise republicans into submitting to British and unionist demands.

Given the alacrity with which most of the media in Britain, Ireland and even the United States rushed in to fulfil their choreographed role in a hyped-up campaign over 'IRA guns', this second explanation is more plausible.

Something verging on hysteria was being whipped up over republican arms which, with one short interruption four years ago, have been silent for seven years. Not so with loyalist guns and explosives, which have been much used in recent months with little reprimand.

It was Downing Street's front-man striker, Trimble, who set the ball rolling for the campaign when he resigned in a huff from his post as first minister. In doing so he only succeeded in reinforcing his reputation as a scorer of own-goals.

He pulled this latest stroke at the start of the Orange marching season when the last thing that was needed was the piling of more fuel on the bonfires. He then declared, again to approving choruses from the Furies in the news-media, that the Weston Park talks would be about one thing and one thing only, 'IRA guns', which had to be decommissioned at his command.

Not content to leave this matter with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) he wanted 'local input' in the disposal of IRA weapons -- code for saying that he wanted his UUP to have ownership of this aspect of the Good Friday agreement as well.

By aggravating the issue still further, Trimble must surely have been conscious that he was making it harder to attain. What he was asking for is nowhere to be found in the spirit or the letter of the agreement.

What then could have been his motive for his apparently irrational antics? Ever since the signing of the agreement three years ago, unionists have been developing a strategy for circumventing the democratic reforms promised by the accord.

It is a strategy which has been largely successful. Were reforms to be implemented in full it would amount to the demolition of the Orange-unionist state in the north.

To look at it another way. What if the decommissioning boot was on the other foot and Sinn Féin continually whipped up crises by demanding that the UUP deliver on its obligation to persuade the loyalist paramilitaries over which it has influence to get rid of their arsenals?

There is no evidence whatsoever that they have ever tried to do so. Ritual knuckle-tapping couched as occasional passing casual references is far from enough. Besides, real action would conflict with their primary aim -- to provoke Sinn Féin into exiting from the Stormont executive by binning the agreement.

Yet Trimble persisted in declaring that the Weston Park talks would have the decommissioning of 'IRA guns' as the sole agenda item. Everyone, he insisted, was in agreement with him -- the British and Irish governments, the Americans, the ever-pliant media and even sections of the SDLP.

The SDLP's setbacks in the recent Westminster and local council elections may well have influenced Seamus Mallon's thinking. His comments about Sinn Féin's possible exclusion from the Stormont executive certainly give the impression that he is tempted to walk into the spider's web which the unionists have lovingly fashioned for him.

Then again it is possible that he was simply adding to the 'pressure' which, according to Trimble, the Weston Park talks were designed to exert on republicans.

With all that was claimed to be going for them, one would have thought that unionism and loyalism would have faced the culmination of the marching season with a huge degree of complacency, their irritation over Drumcree aside.

However, despite Weston Park being touted as a potential unionist triumph, large sections of unionism/loyalism showed by its behaviour that it did not take Trimble at his word.

When unionism senses that its supremacist interests are in danger it reacts in a Pavlovian way, reverting to the methods employed to frustrate Home Rule for the whole of Ireland back in the 1920s. This resulted in attacks on the republican/nationalist community, on-going with venom since the beginning of the year, being intensified.

None of this helped Trimble, who eventually had to face up to the fact that policing reform, British army demilitarisation, the stability of the Good Friday institutions and an array of other matters, such as the reform of the criminal justice system, for which a review report is awaited, and the question of plastic bullets etc., would be part of the Weston Park discussions.

When the talks eventually, and inevitably, ground to a halt, the two governments were, finally, forced to take responsibility for sorting out the mess.

We are now waiting for a set of proposals for resolving the various issues, which they are expected to present them to the six-county parties on a take it or leave it basis.

Everyone knows that they will not be able to square the circle and that what eventually emerges will probably please nobody.

The rejectionists of the UUP and DUP are already fulminating against 'further concessions' to republicanism -- as if a civilianised, non-sectarian police service, democratically accountable to all sections of the community, was not an inalienable human right.

But then, what do they know of democracy as it is understood elsewhere in what are termed normal liberal democratic states?

Sinn Féin, while cautiously giving a welcome to this two-government initiative, has entered the stipulation that, whatever they come up with, their proposals must not contain a renegotiation of the agreement. Sinn Féin spokesman Gerry Kelly has said that this is exactly what was attempted at Weston Park.

It is time to remind the two governments, and especially Tony Blair, of the words of Fergus Finlay, one time advisor to the leader of the Irish Labour party, who once famously declared that a peace process without Sinn Féin is 'not worth a penny candle'.

August/September 2001

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