Parliamentary Brief
May 1995

At long last the inevitable has happened and the British Government has announced it will engage Sinn Fein in bilateral talks to commence in a matter of days. Mounting anger, by no means confined to the nationalist camp, at British procrastination has been alleviated to some extent, although it is far from certain that all concerned are out from the woods just yet.

'Who blinked first?' was the banner headline in the Belfast Telegraph. No answer was forthcoming and we can only speculate. But from initial appearances it seems that Sinn Fein held its ground. The republican columnist, Hilda Mac Thomas, writing in the Sinn Fein weekly, AP/RN, claimed that the decisive factor influencing the British 'climbdown' had been the increasing and widening chorus of protest at the delay. The most significant criticism perhaps coming from the former taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who, in the strongest language to date, asserted that if the IRA 'went back to armed conflict people won't blame them because they have shown good faith'. A remarkable comment by any standards.

Nevertheless, republicans, not without good reason, are still apprehensive, pointing to the emergence of what they identify as a 'twin track' political process, with the British engaging what they call ''the four main constitutional parties'' in talks about the political future of the North of Ireland, whereas they would confine Sinn Fein to 'exploratory' talks on the modalities of 'decommissioning' IRA weapons.

That aside, what precisely is it that republicans are going to raise with the British when the two eventually lock horns over the table? For their part republicans claim that Sinn Fein's position is clear, and has not changed since the start of exploratory talks with British civil servants at the end of last year. What they seek is equality of treatment for themselves and for the people they represent. The talks should have an open ended agenda, and facilitate rather than delay the start of all-party talks, which republicans claim are the only means by which agreement will be found among Irish people.

Sinn Fein general secretary Lucilita Bhreatnach pledged that her party at the talks would 'put our view that a lasting peace in Ireland can only be based on the right of all the Irish people to national self determination'. Sinn Fein would, she added, approach the discussions 'on the basis that they must address all the issues at the heart of the conflict, that there can be no vetoes over those discussions and that through inclusive negotiations we can move towards a democratic agreement acceptable for the first time, to all the Irish people'.

Such agreement must of course be seen in the context of the Downing Street Declaration which Republicans refer back to, and in which the British said that they would facilitate 'agreement' among the Irish people. All very well. But there is a snag which republicans have not yet displayed any indications of coming to terms with. As Paul Bew, Henry Patterson and Peter Gibbon, point out in their latest book, Northern Ireland 1921-1994, 'The British, it is true, were now 'facilitators', though not for Irish unity but for an agreed Ireland, and an 'agreed' Ireland, by definition, could not be a united Ireland until there was majority consent in the North'. In other words to 'facilitate' is by no means synonomous with confronting the unionist veto.

Although Hilda Mac Thomas has argued that Unionism is in a crisis, a historical cul de sac, and is aware that Britain's long term intentions are for disengagement from Ireland, it just being a matter of 'when' not 'if', the disconcerting fact remains that such an intention is not something that can only recently be ascribed to the British state. The republican dilemma in this regard is amplified when confronted with the question of how long is long term? According to Padraig O'Malley, one leading Sinn Fein member told the Opsahl Commission that a period of fifty years would suffice. This is a significantly bleaker estimation than the twenty year time span suggested by Albert Reynolds and which caused shudders of anxiety to seize many northern nationalists.

Republicans undoubtedly hope that Andrew Marr had his finger firmly on the pulse when writing in The Independent. He said of the unionists, 'the Ulster frontiersmen can no longer count on the might of Westminster in their struggle against Dublin, but are expected to sit down themselves with the Romish horde. Their position is transformed from a majority to a minority. To the outgunned and outnumbered, promises of vetoes and agreement aren't much reassurance'.

Be that as it may, 12.7 per cent of the electorate in the North - a constantly recurring theme in republican discourse as they justifiably protest at their democratic mandate being ignored - poses little threat to the unionist veto. Discursively then, the traditional republican demands will form part of the talks agenda but could ultimately end up being put on the long finger, the gap in between being 'greenly' padded out by references to any British movement as constituting the transitional stage to a united Ireland'. And the 'transition' underpined by both the London and Dublin governments will last for just as long as a majority in the North of Ireland wish it to.

In such circumstances the intellectual elasticity of many will be tested in full as they endeavour to discern how veto and transition differ. And some will inevitably conclude that transition is veto by just another name.



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