Back to the future: a gun in one hand, the ballot box in the other


AS THE two governments were attempting to balance conflicting demands over the precise role Senator George Mitchell will have in next Monday's all party talks earlier yesterday, the IRA sought to wreck expectations of a new beginning.

Last night's IRA statement was cold and unpromising. As if efforts at securing compromise by the two governments and by President Clinton were of no account, the IRA dismissed the possibility of a cease fire as "remote in the extreme". And it binned the Mitchell compromise on decommissioning with the words. "The IRA will not be decommissioning its weapons through either the front or the back doors. We will never leave nationalist areas defenceless this side of a final settlement."

So much for the democratic road. So much for political compromise. So much for the "vote for peace" slogan under which Sinn Fein had campaigned so successfully in the Northern elections. It was a coldly calculated response to what the IRA regarded as a pincer movement, designed to end its power and its very existence.

A day that had begun with high optimism in London dribbled into darkness. Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, Dick Spring and Paddy Mayhew rose wearily from the negotiating table and thought they had a deal which would eventually bring all parties to the negotiating table.

But by mid morning, David Trimble had declared his outright opposition to the role proposed for Senator George Mitchell and he was still unhappy about aspects of arms decommissioning. On his urging, Conservative backbenchers warned John Major against making concessions to the IRA and spoke darkly about the vulnerability of the government.

Under pressure from two quarters, Mr Major wavered and demanded a rethink. Officials from both governments went back into emergency conclave. The deal began to unravel. It was one thing to give Mr Mitchell control of the arms decommissioning issue after all, he had masterminded the framework under which it could take place. It was quite another to allow this outsider direct involvement in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom and an overview of the whole negotiations process.

New thinking and new political structures were gravely suspect to unionists and conservatives. Old certainties were far more palatable. Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionists reflected that defensiveness when he said. "An outside political view would only complicate matters."

Ian Paisley had already passed judgment in blunt and insulting language. Mr Mitchell was not acceptable to the DUP as "a kind of Pope", he said, to chair the talks and influence all aspects of them. The "crony of Gerry Adams" was a political no no for the DUP.

Unionist reaction was just part of the grey stain that spread across what had once been a bright canvas. As Dick Spring tried to reassure republicans and nationalists by maximising Mr Mitchell's role in negotiations, the IRA threw his efforts back in the Government's face.

Talks on June 10th would be "meaningless", a statement said, and the prospect of an IRA ceasefire was "remote in the extreme". At a time when the Government was pressing the British for concessions, in the expectation of a renewed IRA ceasefire, its effect was devastating. It was clearly designed to encourage John Major not to take any political risks.

The IRA was involved in a damage limitation exercise. The talks were "meaningless" therefore, there was no point in the IRA calling a ceasefire in order to allow Sinn Fein to attend. The gunmen still ruled. Sinn Fein would not be allowed to wag the IRA dog.

Even before the formal IRA statement added gloom to the London negotiations, Gerry Adams had donned a seamless republican cloak and marked out the ground on which Sinn Fein would stand. Singing from the same hymn sheet as the IRA, he said the long awaited all party talks were not "proper all party talks". And, looking into his own heart, Mr Adams declared. "They are not the kind of talks that the people of Ireland or Britain desire or deserve." It was another "Alice in Wonderland" performance words meaning only what he desired them to mean.

The IRA refused to declare a ceasefire because it did not accept the Mitchell report and its suggestion of parallel arms decommissioning. Just as unionists feared outsiders with unclear agendas so did the IRA. It reached for traditional certainties the organisation would not hand over any weapons in advance of a final political settlement.

No room for negotiation or compromise there. No room for political mandates. And little chance for Sinn Fein to grow as a normal democratic party. It was a case of back to the future advancing with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other.

John Hume didn't despair. He looked for scraps of consolation in the progress already made. And he hoped the "de facto" ceasefire which had existed in Northern Ireland for the past two years would continue.

Late last night the two governments moved to seize the initiative and announced that Mr Mitchell would have an "over arching" role in the talks process. Precise details are still unclear, but the democratic process has been set in train.

In the short to medium term, any hope for a political settlement rests on the established parties of the centre. June 10th and the all party talks are the gateway into that future.