Safe from exclusion, Sinn Fein turns screw on Mitchell review

Mo Mowlam must feel a little like Gladstone

Mo Mowlam must feel a little like Gladstone. It was said 100 years ago that as soon as the English statesman figured he was about to answer the Irish question the Irish changed the question.

Some are still at it. On Friday Dr Mowlam probably felt she had found a way of keeping Sinn Fein in the political process without totally disavowing principle. But then Sinn Fein went and changed the principle.

Mark Durkan of the SDLP and Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had respectively provided her with the method and the support to ensure that Sinn Fein was not penalised for the alleged actions of the IRA. Then Martin McGuinness warned on Saturday that any additional sanctions on the IRA would be most serious and there could be a Sinn Fein boycott of the review in September. As Dr Mowlam today considers whether to suspend IRA prisoner releases, one can picture her operating under a cloud of Gladstonian exasperation.

Last week the Northern Secretary was hoping some politician or civil servant could conjure a device that would allow her straight-facedly to argue that sanctions need not be imposed on Sinn Fein for the alleged IRA murder of Charles Bennett and the foiled Florida gun-running operation.

Pragmatically, Dr Mowlam was more than well aware that if George Mitchell's review was to have any chance of success Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and their colleagues must be involved.

On a question of principle, she equally realised that following Mr Bennett's murder and the gun-smuggling the Provisional republican movement must face some correction. But should it be both faces of republicanism or just its paramilitary countenance?

After all, as Tony Blair has consistently stated, with Sinn Fein and the IRA you can't have one without the other. So, where were the great founts of wisdom to help her slither from this dilemma?

Enter Mark Durkan followed by Ken Maginnis. The Assembly member for Foyle provided her with the theological basis for keeping Sinn Fein on board the listing ship that is the Belfast Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, in the face of opposition from within his own party, supplied her with the encouragement to accept, from the standpoint of the Yes people, such necessary sophistry.

Mr Durkan and the SDLP delegation told Dr Mowlam last Tuesday that under the ground rules all signatories to the agreement were eligible to be present at the review on September 6th. It wasn't for her to determine who should or should not attend.

Perhaps Dr Mowlam's own mandarins could have devised such an escape clause, but what was important was that the idea came from one of the talks participants. On Tuesday, it's reasonable to assume, Dr Mowlam would have run with this proposal, if she could get away with it.

But anti-agreement unionists will latch on to anything to shaft Sinn Fein. Were she to come out and state that following the SDLP intervention she had discovered that legislatively she had no option but to involve Adams and McGuinness in the review, Ian Paisley, Robert McCartney and Cedric Wilson would have been forming a queue to lash her for lack of principle.

But on Wednesday, with David Trimble and John Taylor out of the picture, Ken Maginnis led a team of UUP members into talks with Mo Mowlam. "We want Sinn Fein in the review," said Mr Maginnis staunchly. How could Dr Mowlam resist such an entreaty?

Mr Maginnis's argument was that Sinn Fein's dubious, ambiguous commitment to democracy must be challenged, tested and exposed. He said he was prepared to wager a month's wages that David Trimble would support his stance. Mr Trimble, just back in Northern Ireland after his summer holiday, didn't totally disappoint him. He said yesterday that sanctions must be imposed, without specifying whether Sinn Fein, as well as the IRA, should be punished.

However, colleagues such as William Thompson, Peter Weir and Jonathan Bell were infuriated, while John Taylor judged Mr Maginnis's strategy a bad call.

But it was the Maginnis and Durkan views that prevailed. On Friday, late in the evening, the Northern Ireland Office revealed that it just did not have the power to chastise Sinn Fein. Principle turned upside down, perhaps, but relief all round in the Yes camp? Well, not among the republican campers. If Dr Mowlam finally decides this week, possibly today, that the IRA killed Charles Bennett then she must target the IRA.

That is expected to mean halting IRA releases; this within the context that there are only about 65 IRA members still in jail. And if Mr Mitchell somehow pulls off the review there is little likelihood of the punishment fitting the crime. It's almost certain that the freeze on releases will be temporary, and will be promptly lifted if somehow the Belfast Agreement is salvaged.

But at the weekend Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness was warning that penalising prisoners could affect whether his party engages in the September talks. ein's participation in any review."

It would be a "big mistake", he added. The party's ardchomhairle would decide early next month whether to participate in the review, and were prisoners to be disciplined Sinn Fein might boycott the venture.

There could be an element of posturing in Mr McGuinness's remarks. IRA prisoners in the Maze are understood to have already been briefed by republicans that there will be a pause in releases.

But it is always a fraught business to predict how the IRA might react to any situation. If logic applied, it would be reasonable to assume that it would take its medicine and, after much complaint, allow Sinn Fein to make its case in the September negotiations. But sometimes in the North it's too late for logic.

In issuing her judgment, if Dr Mowlam includes a clause stating that the check on releases will most likely be a brief one, it could facilitate Janus-faced republicanism grudgingly accepting any censure.

What happened in the past seven days reflects the disunity within the Ulster Unionist Party, the perversity of republicanism, and the desire within the rest of the Yes side to travel almost any distance, however rocky or dodgy, to save the Belfast Agreement.

But, for the pro-agreement side, it makes sense that every attempt should be made to give the September talks a chance. It might not be principled, but at least it might serve as another transfusion for the accord.

Come September 6th, there's still only one question to be resolved: which comes first, guns or government? The political and paramilitary turbulence of recent weeks is just another pointer to how difficult it will be to establish a stable climate for that initiative.