New Statesman & Society leader, 25 August 1995

A year after the IRA ceasefire, there is no room for complacency. All-party talks must start soon – and all sides must give ground

 The IRA ceasefire is one year old this week. That is cause for some cheer: there has been peace in Northern Ireland during that time, apart from a few isolated shootings and the occasional riot. But it is decidedly not a cause for complacency.

The period of peace has shown us two important things aboutthe erstwhile terrorists. First, Sinn Fein enjoys the limelight and recognises that it gets more of it in peace than after violence. Second, traditional loyalists have been outflanked by the creativity of former loyalist para¬militaries, whose commitment to peace has proved as strong as that of republicans.

Perhaps more importantly, peace has made the lives of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland that bit more civilised. People feel free to shop and socialise in central Belfast and Derry. Tourists have flocked to the region as never before, not least from the Republic. The people want peace to go on.

For several months after the IRA declared its ceasefire, ministers appeared on the Today programme to question the permanence of peace. Having accepted that peace seemed more permanent than temporary, Sinn Fein was allowed to appear on news bulletins. Now the ministers ask: when will decommissioning begin? That is an important issue, but certainly not the only one at the moment. No mantra can be a substitute for positive action.

When the talks do start, the agenda must face up to economic and social issues, as well as political structures. Unemployment must be tackled, not least in those areas from which the extremes draw their support. Unity of purpose between loyalists and nationalists exists on gaining European Commission funds for the region. The tourist boards North and South have gained from greater cooperation. Such social and economic partnerships can help to dispel much political distrust.

Eventually, there must be moves towards political agreement. Nobody should expect overnight solutions. Sinn Fein may cling to a belief in a united Ireland in public, but even it is beginning to acknowledge the realpolitik already accepted by the major parties south of the border. Traditional unionists must be prepared to be as flexible as the newer loyalist parties. Power-sharing will need to develop, a new assembly will have to be created. But the greater cross-border cooperation will be as far as aspirations for unity can go for the moment.

In the longer term, Europe may offer more answers. The Commission has supported the peace process. The two most formidable politicians in the North, John Hume and Ian Paisley, both sit in the European Parliament. Europe has backed cross-border regional schemes in north western Ireland for years. In the future, politicians may be more pragmatic and increasingly prefer to deal with Brussels rather than London. That is no united Ireland. But it is infinitely preferable to the status quo before the ceasefire.

Private Lee Clegg may well have been a victim of circumstances, which led to his conviction for killing a young joyrider. But his premature release was the single most destabilising action of the British government in the past year. For the sake of a few extra backbench votes, John Major seemed prepared to sacrifice years of painstaking work. Fortunately, after a few days of protest, the issue has gone away.

There are ways for Major to redeem his position in Ire¬land. First, the London government shoulduse the Clegg release as a backdrop for more vigorous action to transfer prisoners home from British jails to Northern Ireland. Second, the parole board should become more flexible with non-violent Republican and Loyalist prisoners.

But it is not simply the British government that must make gestures. The IRA does not want to lose face; as Gerry Adams reminded a Belfast audience recently, the IRA has not gone away. So any expectation that the Provos will have dumped their arms outside Stormont on the way into talks is a fantasy. They could, however, arrange for a significant increase in the number of arms dumps “discovered” by the Garda and the RUC. That should allow Sinn Fein to take part in all-party talks. While they’re at it, they should also end the punishment beatings of nationalist dissidents.

The talks must begin soon. There is growing impa¬tience about the speed of progress. Discount the dis-gruntled former Irish premier Albert Reynolds, who joined Sinn Fein to attack the decommissioning precon-dition. Listen instead to the current government in Dublin, which has been disappointed by both the pace of change in London and the insensitivity of some of Major’s actions.

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