Important Word Games


Contrary to what Sinn Fein's senior spokesmen themselves are sometimes wont to say, word games can be important. Mr Gerry Adams's statement of last evening, declaring that violence is "now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone" is a case in point. In tandem with the reports that Mr Martin McGuinness is to join General de Chastelain's arms decommissioning panel, Mr Adams's words have to be viewed as significant. The Government sees these as important steps forward. So does Mr Blair. The unionist leader, Mr Trimble, has responded guardedly but not negatively.

Not all of Mr Trimble's party will be immediately persuaded of the value of Mr Adams's words or of Mr McGuinness's reported willingness to participate in the processes which are designed to lead to the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. Even among Mr Trimble's loyal ranks there are those who insist that there should be actual decommissioning of weapons before Sinn Fein can sit in an executive, regardless of the fact that the Belfast Agreement makes no such stipulation. Mr Trimble will not be without internal resistance if he seeks to respond affirmatively to Sinn Fein's gesture. Nonetheless, outside of his party ranks he will be under intense pressure to do so, not least from President Clinton. Mr Adams's statement and Mr McGuinness's participation in the decommissioning body gives him at least some of the political space he requires.

It is paradoxical, even as those at opposite ends of the political spectrum edge together, and as President Clinton arrives to underpin America's continuing commitment to the peace process, that the two parliaments of these islands should be meeting in special session to pass emergency laws in the aftermath of the Omagh atrocity - the political process and the security response going forward side by side. Would that it were otherwise. There is a body of argument, of which Sinn Fein is perhaps the most vocal, which says that the proposed legal changes are repressive, that they will set off a cycle of resistance and alienation and that they will be abused by the security authorities. Emergency laws have not worked, Mr Pat Doherty said on RTE on Monday evening. Security solutions have not brought the peace which has come about through dialogue, he declared. This is dangerous nonsense and only the culpably amnesiac will swallow it. Emergency legislation has worked - and very effectively. Through the efforts of the security forces North and South, it has helped to save countless lives, taken hundreds of bombers, gunmen and arsonists out of circulation and saved democracy from the Provisional IRA and others of their ilk. If Sinn Fein is now at the conference table, it is due, in the first instance, to the fact that its military counterpart was unable to break the will of democratically-elected governments or to get the better of their security forces.

The measures which are to be presented respectively to the Dail and the House of Commons today are distasteful and it is earnestly to be hoped that they will lapse once they have achieved their purpose. But it is essential that the new democracy be allowed to flourish and that the security forces have the capacity to deal with those who would try - as at Omagh - to drown it in the blood of innocents. There are aspects of the legislation before the Dail which will be fine-tuned in response to proposed amendments from various quarters and it is to be hoped that the Government will be sensibly responsive to constructive suggestion. Above all, the two governments must demonstrate their determination that there will be no abuses by the security forces. Neither state has a particularly proud record in this respect. There must be no tolerance of excess, no bending of the rules, no turning of the blind eye by those in political authority.