McCartney calls for an elected body of short duration to draw up "democratic consensus"

 

AN elected assembly or convention in the North should be of just three weeks' duration, according to the Independent Unionist MP, Mr Robert McCartney. And it should have the task only of establishing the "democratic consensus" on which all party negotiations could take place.

Mr McCartney has told The Irish Times that the proposed elected body "should have a short deliberative life", with its dealings "concentrated exclusively on the issue of consent and the Mitchell Report. If agreement on the democratic rules was established, the elected body should be dissolved, and the parties should proceed directly to a round table conference".

For negotiations to proceed, the McCartney plan would require

. acceptance of the principle of consent for any change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position;

. acceptance of the Mitchell Report's six principles;

. agreement on the modalities for "parallel decommissioning" alongside all party negotiations.

Mr McCartney's radical proposal comes as British and Irish officials resume the search for an agreed communique and with this week's planned Anglo Irish summit still in doubt.

The liaison group of British and Irish officials will meet in London cater today and tentative arrangements have been made for a meeting between Mr Paddy Teahon Secretary to the Department of the Taoiseach, and the British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler.

But a weekend of frantic political and diplomatic activity has produced no sign yet of imminent agreement on the ingredients of a new political initiative.

The options available to both governments are further complicated by internal unionist manoeuvres on the eve of tonight's crucial House of Commons vote on the Scott Report, with the Ulster Unionists and the DUP competing to exert maximum influence on Mr John Major.

The DUP's decision to abstain in tonight's vote has fuelled Mr David Trimble's suspicions that Mr Major might be tempted to hold what would amount to a party plebiscite, with the North being treated as a single constituency and parties nominating negotiators from a German style list system. The UUP suspects that the SDLP secretly favours this formula, which would replicate the conditions of the North's European elections, and see Mr John Hume and the Rev Ian Paisley battle for pole position.

Mr Trimble, whose nine votes could determine tonight's vote, wants a constituency based election and is determined to maximise the role of an elected body in any future negotiations. And, with senior SDLP figures insisting privately that the party might boycott any elections called, it appears that London and Dublin have yet to agree even the principle of an elective process.

Faced with the competing claims of the main parties, Mr McCartney's proposal may be regarded as but another complication. But the North Down MP argues that it has the merit of simplicity and directness; that it would bring unionists and Sinn Fein face to face immediately after an election; and that it would quickly establish whether there was a basis for negotiation.

Mr McCartney does not conceal his purpose, or his belief that negotiations involving Sinn Fein might ultimately prove impossible. He says that, if there is not agreement on the principles within three weeks, the two governments should "pull the plug" and proceed to talks involving only the constitutional parties. Nationalist Ireland, he says, "will have to abandon the nationalist consensus for a consensus of democrats".

As an independent, Mr McCartney would personally benefit from an election providing an "indexation" of support. But he says that he is neutral as to the form an election might take. And he could be expected to emerge as a key figure in any unionist engagement with Sinn Fein on the ground rules for subsequent negotiations.

That promised engagement might prove attractive to London and Dublin, as they contrast and compare Mr McCartney's proposal with those of the two main unionist parties. For, while the DUP clearly feels it is now able to do business with Mr Major on its convention plan, Mr Peter Robinson has made it clear that the party will not negotiate directly with Sinn Fein. And while Mr Trimble has said talks on the Mitchell proposals should follow an election, Mr McCartney's plan might ease nationalist fears that a unionist dominated assembly would remain a permanent part of the landscape even if negotiations involving Sinn Fein do not go ahead.

Mr McCartney has already discussed his ideas with the Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, and the British Labour Party leader, Mr Tony Blair, and he is likely to seek an opportunity to join Mr Major's further round of consultations ahead of the expected summit.