The long trek towards political agreement starts again


ONCE again the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have delivered the promise of movement and a covenant of fair terms. The long trek forward must begin again, but the columns are weary now and questioning whether this is really the beginning of a great march.

Over two years ago, on December 15th 1993, the Downing Street Declaration electrified, inspired and marshalled the divided factions for "a new departure". It was to "break decisively the cycle of violence" and "transform the prospects" and it constructed the concept of agreement based on consent.

The vision that mobilised that expedition has become tarnished and blurred by the mishaps, adversity and setbacks encountered along the way. Reserves of energy and optimism are much lower now, and it will be difficult to regain momentum.

The British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have set a brisk pace for this new phase of a flagging process. Hopes of maintaining it will depend crucially on them continuing to lead purposefully and with skill at every turn.

A vital element of the formula to regenerate progress is the proposition held out by both men but particularly emphasised by Mr Bruton that the goal of all party negotiations can no longer be discredited as a mirage.

The fixing of a firm date has been the central aspiration of republicans and nationalists for the past two years. It should, on the logic of his repeated statements, provide sufficient fillip to Mr Gerry Adams's crusade to allow him to try once more for an IRA cessation.

Moreover, it is reinforced by the timely resurrection of the Mitchell report. If all goes well in the interim period, the recipe put together painstakingly by the international body will finally be put to the test on June 10th or shortly after that date.

This is a double edged prospect for Mr Gerry Adams. When he committed himself to grasping the Mitchell option honestly soon after its publication, he was operating almost instinctively performing a genuine leadership role by undertaking to plunge into waters that could not be fully charted, and acutely aware that he would face a daunting personal challenge in seeking to bring all sections of the republican movement with him.

The dynamic, and the opportunity, that existed at that precise point in time has been blunted by the events since then. Suspicions have multiplied and the Rub icon of violence has been recrossed. Mr Adams's authority and credibility have been questioned.

But if the new prospectus, set out by the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach is to have any chance of success, Mr Adams must submit himself to the test yet again and engage directly with the challenge of Mitchell.

It will not be easy. An adventurous leap in the dark is no longer feasible. It is clear, from the cautious early responses by Sinn Fein to yesterday's events, that a period of intense deliberation will ensue. That is a dangerous prospect, for when the republican family goes into prolonged conclave there is every chance that the outcome may be conservative and negative.

It may be asked of the IRA:

"How can it charitably dispose of anything when blood is its argument?" And yet the formula presented to it now is persuasive. The objective of genuine negotiations is firmly held out as attainable, with no preconditions the Mitchell standards and procedures only come into play (as the authors of the report intended) at the point when serious negotiations begin.

To resist the incentives now offered would certainly cause massive damage to the republican case particularly in the all important Irish American diaspora but everywhere else as well.

The unionists are faced with an even more urgent test. Less than two weeks are allowed for them to make their case in regard to electoral procedures and the format of talks, before Mr Major if he means what he says will take matters into his own hands.

Prevarication seems no longer feasible. The UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, has the ball at his feet and most likely with no DUP back up until March 13th. It will be a brief but highly uncomfortable period for him, but it offers him an opportunity to display real leadership qualities. There is hardly time for prolonged conclaves and calculations and certainly no hope of deals.

There is clever compromise in the contrivance of maintaining ministerial detachment from direct meetings with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA does not formally resume a ceasefire. In spite of its members' grumbling yesterday, the party is not seriously disadvantaged by this. Any case or argument it has to make can be advanced effectively through contact with senior officials of both governments, and it can also have talks with whichever parties will agree to talk to it.

Yesterday's communique also firmly preserved the essence of the three stranded formula with the nicety of careful delineation of the areas of constitutional responsibility properly reserved to each sovereign government.

Among ordinary people of both communities, the early response to the new events seemed to contain only one quibble the time scale leading lip to the crucial all party talks was not fast enough.

It is not just impatience that makes the Northern public distrust delays it is their bitter experience that the more time the feuding politicians are given to deliberate, the more excuses they are likely to find for declining to engage with each other, and the more things that can go wrong.

Over the next three months or so, there will certainly be difficult periods and intense disputes. But, now that there is a clearly mapped out, time limited plan, it is more likely that these problematic phases will be "lucid intervals and happy pauses" rather than the gloomy cycles of hopelessness which punctuated the peace process up to recently.

The political players for whom the kick off whistle has suddenly and loudly sounded may complain that they are being forced into unduly hasty assessments. There will be little public sympathy for them. In the words of Thomas Jefferson "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it".