SF stands exposed as arbiter of peace or violence


THE next few days may show if the resumption of the IRA's bombing campaign was based on broad political considerations or whether it reflected a sterile military strategy designed to avoid arms decommissioning further down the line.

The bombs in London pushed Sinn Fein to the edge of the political stage and undermined the credibility and authority of its leadership. Following yesterday's announcement by both governments the stark choice facing republicans is between the bomb and the ballot box. Sinn Fein's terms for a resumption of the ceasefire have been met a fixed date for negotiations and no preconditions. The IBA now has to deliver or turn its back on the democratic process.

Yesterday's open handed response by John Bruton and John Major has offered a principled way back to centre stage for Sinn Fein and has emphasised the continuing commitment of both leaders to the peace process and to a fair and equitable political settlement in Northern Ireland.

The Framework Document rejected by unionists when it was published has reemerged as a template for the thinking of both governments on a political settlement. And the Downing Street Declaration, with its three stranded approach, has been strongly endorsed. All the signs point towards the two governments favouring a settlement where Northern Ireland would have links to Britain and the Republic.

This option attracted 29 per cent support from the electorate in this State in yesterday's Irish Times/Guardian opinion poll, only marginally less than the 30 per cent which favoured a united Ireland.

The changing public attitude on this issue, under the shadow of a renewed IRA campaign, is certain to influence Sinn Fein political thinking. And unionists could find reassurance in the willingness of people in the South to recognise the key concepts of "consent" and "parity of esteem" in the Downing Street Declaration.

Far more important for Sinn Fein, in the short term, is the reality that a failure by the IRA to reinstate its ceasefire would lead to the collapse of residual public sympathy. Up to now, the British government has been identified as being responsible for the breakdown of the peace process. Some 46 per cent of Irish voters blamed the British government in yesterday's opinion poll, compared with 29 per cent which faulted the IRA.

Now that the two governments have fixed a date for all party negotiations and swept aside all decommissioning preconditions, Sinn Fein stands exposed as the arbiter of peace or violence. If the IBA continues with its campaign then blame for the bombing cannot be laid at Britain's door.

Sinn Fein sources urge caution and the need for government clarification. They complain they are not being treated as other democratic parties under the Downing Street communique. And they are not. Because of its links with the IBA and its on going campaign of violence, Sinn Fein cannot be regarded in the same light as other democratic patties. The clock has been turned back to the days when Albert Reynolds offered republicans a way into negotiations if they abandoned violence for good. They accepted that offer in 1994 and announced a complete cessation of military activities. They are now being asked to repeat that process.

The governments have been more open and generous in their responses to the failure of the peace process than Sinn Fein could have hoped. Their efforts were applauded by Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney in a special Dail debate which opened last night. And Fianna Fail spoke of using all of its considerable influence in encouraging Sinn Fein to seek an IRA cessation of violence.

The people in all parts of this island want peace demand that political negotiations get under way. They are ready to contemplate hard choices in reaching accommodations with their neighbours. The process which is now getting under way is not about victory for one side or the other in Northern Ireland it is about compromise, accommodation and cold, clinical judgment on the balance of community benefits.

There is still great scope for disagreement and name calling between the Northern parties in preliminary discussions on an elective process on the basis, participation, structure and format of negotiations, and on whether a referendum should be held. Nine days of talks, beginning next Monday, are expected to identify broad areas of agreement on these issues. After that, the two governments will review the outcome of consultations and Mr Major will take the tough decisions.

John Major said he could encourage, but not force, the parties to participate in the formal negotiations. And, judging by the response of David Trimble and Ian Paisley to the prospect of Sinn Fein involvement, he has his work cut out.

The Government and opposition parties have already begun to apply pressure on Sinn Fein to seek a resumption of the IRA ceasefire. And, behind the scenes, the United States administration is actively involved in a similar process.

The political package unveiled at Downing Street was not complete. But it was all that could be managed at this time. There is time enough for Senator George Mitchell's reinvolvement in the political equation and for the passage of legislation to allow for the modalities of decommissioning.

The first hurdles to be cleared are the resumption of an IRA ceasefire and the opening of preliminary discussions between the Northern parties.