When peace almost died of exhaustion

 

The first ceasefire took years to create, but only 17 months to collapse. Now after another 17 months republicans are back in "peace mode", to use one of Mr Gerry Adams's favourite phrases. It's been a long period politically - a time when the entire peace process regularly appeared to be destined to die of exhaustion.

The first ceasefire was a momentous period for Northern Ireland. In the months from the end of August 1994, when the ceasefire was called, to early February 1996, some of the wounds inflicted in a bitter and ugly 25-year war were beginning to heal. The bomb that ripped apart Canary Wharf and killed two innocent civilians restored the violence and the depression.

The end of the IRA ceasefire in February last year also sent tremors through the loyalist paramilitary cessation called in October 1994. But throughout, although breached on several occasions, it nonetheless at least presented a facade of being intact.

After Canary Wharf there was much political action but little political movement. Over the past 17 months the repetitive word in most media reports was decommissioning, and how Sinn Fein was insisting it must be removed as a precondition to talks, while unionists were demanding IRA arms must first be handed over before Sinn Fein could enter talks.

In the end Sinn Fein effectively got its way. The British and Irish governments so far are standing firm on their position that with a credible IRA ceasefire neither Sinn Fein nor the loyalist parties could be expelled from the talks because of lack of movement on disarmament.

The British-Irish position on disarmament means that that the DUP and the UK Unionist Party will not engage with that process, at least initially - they made the same threat before the multi-party talks of June 10th last year, although they did finally engage in that process.

It also casts serious casts doubt on whether the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mr David Trimble will sign up to the talks. Next Wednesday - when the parties to the talks vote on the British-Irish decommissioning paper - will determine whether Mr Trimble will, or can, take a stance independent of the Rev Ian Paisley and Mr Robert McCartney.

Little of substance happened during the ceasefire to bring Sinn Fein into the talks. But after Canary Wharf the British government was galvanised into opening the way for proximity talks, Forum elections and what was then hoped would be all-party talks starting on June 10th last year.

The actual start of the June 10th talks was very difficult. The three unionist parties opposed former US senator Mr George Mitchell being installed as chairman. They saw this as a British-Irish imposition. Dr Paisley and Mr McCartney spoke of betrayal and tried to bring Mr Trimble with them but Mr Trimble went his own way and Mr Mitchell took over the reins.

Mr Gerry Adams and Mr Martin McGuinness turned up at Stormont and were denied access because of the resumption of IRA violence. Mr Adams lamented that he was not allowed inside to speak for peace, which won him propaganda points on the international stage although greeted with some cynicism here.

Still, the real political battle for concessions, waged primarily between the British government and Sinn Fein, continued. Sinn Fein set down four preconditions for an IRA ceasefire - confidence-building measures, a timetable for talks, a date for Sinn Fein's entry to talks, and, most problematic, no decommissioning until a settlement was achieved, or was in sight.

The then British prime minister, Mr John Major, and the then Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, made positive noises about the peace process being advanced. But the concessions the Government and the SDLP wanted to bring Sinn Fein into the equation were not on offer. The Tory government relied on Mr Trimble's party to stay in power and the UUP was not in the mood for concessions.

Over the nine months between June and March this year all the talks achieved was to agree a set of rules and procedures. Through filibustering, arcane legal argument and other methods the main unionist parties, the DUP and the UK Unionists particularly, prevented any real movement.

Outside the talks, though, there were developments. The SDLP was paying the political price for Mr John Hume persevering with his relations with Mr Adams. In the general election, Mr Adams regained his West Belfast seat from the SDLP's Dr Joe Hendron. Mr Martin McGuinness won MidUlster from the Rev William McCrea, a seat the SDLP had targeted.

In addition, the split Sinn FeinSDLP vote gave the new West Tyrone seat to Mr William Thompson of the UUP, again adding to the discomfiture of SDLP members. Unionists were on hand to advise Mr Hume that this was the price paid for "supping with the devil". And then, in the local elections Sinn Fein made further gains, taking 17 per cent of the vote, and reducing the gap with the SDLP to only a few percentage points. And this without any movement from the IRA, despite Mr Adams's assurances that a vote for Sinn Fein was a vote for peace. Nonetheless, Mr Hume maintained his contacts with Mr Adams.

After May, and the two elections, things began to change.

The new Blair government and the new Northern Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, brought impetus to the peace process. Mr Tony Blair had a huge majority which ensured he was not dependent on unionist Commons support. His first visit outside Britain as Prime Minister was to Belfast, where he spoke reassuringly of the Union, and said Sinn Fein and the IRA had one last chance to get aboard the peace settlement train.

His pro-Union stance annoyed republicans but, significantly, he offered Sinn Fein talks with British officials which raised hopes and boosted prospects of real movement at last. Moreover, President Clinton had maintained his interest in the peace process, and the general mood was to at least test the bona fides of Sinn Fein and the IRA. The pressure was on from London, Dublin and Washington. But then Drumcree and the IRA murders of two RUC officers in Lurgan seemed set to scupper chances of political advance. Mr Blair was reportedly on the brink of abandoning his two-step with the republican movement, but Mr Hume again intervened to prevail on him to hold his counsel for a brief period.

The republican movement was to have one last chance. The British government continued its contact with Sinn Fein, apparently contradicting assurances given by Dr Mowlam. There were phone calls between Sinn Fein and British officials. Most significantly, a letter from the British to Mr Martin McGuinness effectively pledged that in the event of a credible IRA ceasefire, decommissioning would not block substantive negotiations.

The Sinn Fein demands had been met. Dr Mowlam had set a nine-month deadline for the talks - meeting Sinn Fein's timetable demand; six weeks after a credible ceasefire Sinn Fein could enter talks - meeting the set-date-fortalks demand; the British indicated on a number of occasions there would be movement on issues such as prisoners and "equality of treatment" - answering the call for confidencebuilding measures. Now, crucially, the final hurdle on decommissioning was surmounted to suit Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Their demands conceded, Sinn Fein, following what now seems an inevitable IRA ceasefire, must now, as Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness pledged on several occasions, enter talks based on their electoral mandate and their republican arguments alone.