TOWARDS ALL PARTY TALKS
Sir, Since 1988, New Consensus has been to the forefront of publicly opposing the paramilitary killing campaigns of the IRA and their loyalist counterparts. We now wish to put on record our belief that all party talks should start as soon as possible, without the precondition of the IRA or their loyalist counterparts physically starting to decommission their weapons.
Decommissioning of illegally held weapons will, of course, be one of many preconditions to such talks reaching a satisfactory outcome. So will a revision of the amount of legally held weapons which were licensed in the context of the conflict while it prevailed. So will an end to the continuing horrific practice of "punishment beatings" and shootings by both sets of paramilitaries. So will the evolution of a largely unarmed police service which clearly cannot happen while the population is so highly armed.
Part of the reality of enabling all of these desirable things to happen is the start of all party talks, with the aim of agreement among the people of Northern Ireland as to how they can live together in peace while respecting each other's chosen identities. It is an agenda that, when ultimately addressed, will clearly include resolving all weapons related issues.
Many unionists and Irish nationalists will approach such talks with a great deal of mistrust. Many people will want such mistrust to be alleviated by a gesture from "the other side" before talks begin. Despite the many complexities, the Mitchell Commission should be able to devise a series of suggested gestures that would be seen to be impartial and constructive.
The paramilitaries on either side could make explicit their intention not to restart their killing campaigns. They could stop the practice of "punishment" beatings a shootings. A revised set of conditions could be suggested for the licensing of legally held weapons in Northern Ireland. The Mitchell Commission itself, or an alternative independent body, could continue to exist as a permanent advisory commission.
While it should not be a precondition to starting all party talks, the paramilitaries could choose to decommission (not surrender) some offensive weaponry such as explosive's, with a stated purpose of their own choosing for doing so, while retaining until later in the process other weapons which they currently believe they may need for self defence.
In reality regardless of the decommissioning issue, and regardless of ideological arguments about what is or is not written down in various joint government documents, everyone involved in all party talks will have the best safeguard that anyone can possibly have in any negotiations about anything, in the recognition by virtually everyone else that a solution cannot be imposed on any section of the Northern Ireland community.
The most important part of the peace equation at the moment is not weapons, but attitudes on all sides. Everyone knows that we cannot have a lasting settlement without all party talks. Everyone knows what the "other side" could do to remove the obstacles to such talks. Everyone should now also ask what they themselves can do to make it easier for the "other side" to reciprocate. Whoever makes the next significant move in that direction will not be seen to have surrendered, but to have brought closer a lasting and just peace. Yours, etc., (chair person), (coordinator) New Consensus, 7 Dargle Road, Drumcondra, Dublin 9.