Unionists fear being stranded on the rock of consent


TOP of the agenda in both London and Dublin is the need to get talks started, talks which include Sinn Fein. No effort is spared by the British government to reassure the IRA that all its anxieties are being addressed and that there will be no question during the talks of "espousing a unionist agenda".

Unionists see this as doubly ironic, in view of the fact that the Conservatives in Scotland have now reverted to calling their party there the Unionist Party and intend to campaign on the platform of saving the Union. Not just ironic by palpably unreasonable given that every government is so unreservedly identified with the nationalist agenda.

And so a fragile British government, anxiously committed to working with Dublin, follows the accepted rite of Spring (Dick) and gives way to each Sinn Fein demand. The Sinn Fein appetite for concessions grows with what it feeds on.

The terms laid down in the Downing Street Declaration for including Sinn Fein had been unequivocally clear a permanent renunciation of violence. On the day of that declaration, Dick Spring stated "Questions were raised on how to determine a permanent cessation of violence. We are talking about the handing in of arms." Absolutely clear. Then the rot set in. The "permanent" ceasefire became a "working assumption" that it was permanent. Verifiable disarming became decommissioning which in turn became something that did not need to be implemented under supervision but "addressed".

Now, in his piece in this newspaper, John Major further muddied the waters. He said "Decommissioning would need to be addressed at the beginning of the talks and agreement reached on how Mitchell's recommendations can be taken forward without blocking the negotiations." (MY italics).

That was the phase everyone seized on. Does it mean that negotiations will go on whether or not any agreement is reached on "the handing in of arms"? That sop tossed to the IRA is balanced by the assurance that "all the participants in the negotiations will have to make clear at the be ginning of the talks (my italics) their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non violence set out in the Mitchell Report."

David Trimble called the statement ambiguous, as it is meant to be. Mitchell made it clear that decommissioning would actually have to occur during the talks. Trimble has emphasised the prime need for that to happen during the negotiations. The IRA has made it clear there will be no disarming short of a final all party settlement. To square that circle without blocking the negotiations will require a Solomon, not just a Mitchell.

CLARIFICATION has now come into the frame again. Gerry Adams wants it from Major over his latest statement. But I am assured that Downing Street feels it has gone as far as it can in wooing Sinn Fein to the table. This, in unionist eyes, continuous pandering to the IRA is not conducive to the creation of confidence, essential if there is to be any meeting of minds.

Unionists ask, what is behind this obsessional need to get Sinn Fein into talks? Has it constitutional proposals, has it a unique point of view which cannot be advanced with equal effectiveness by other nationalist advocates, from the Irish Government, from the SDLP or from the Workers' Party? The answer is no. What it has is one powerful ingredient to reinforce any arguments it makes, a powerful ingredient which is missing in the arguments of all the democratic parties Semtex. The threat of brute force, which they vainly seek to appease, overshadows the strategy of both governments.

We are all very conscious of nationalist concerns and of government efforts to attend to them but unless the wider nationalist community on this island, especially in the South, is aware of unionist fears and aspirations, there is no hope of accommodation.

Unionists hear the honeyed words of Sinn Fein but they listen to the testimony of men like the reformed Sean O'Callaghan, a former member of the IRA who was convicted of murder.

He wrote last week in the Daily Telegraph. After, castigating the "poor fools who thought that the Provos had agreed to the principle of consent" he went on "The target now is Irish nationalism. Republican leaders intend to fester inside nationalism for as long as it takes, poisoning the atmosphere, driving the nationalist agenda forward, forcing people such as John Hume to fight their, corner, alternating selective IRA violence with pious calls for negotiation and compromise. They have no intention of compromising with unionists. They seek to force the British government to abandon unionists so that they can be dealt with."

Can anyone reading that statement honestly deny that it is a frighteningly accurate description of the tactics pursued by Sinn Fein since the original ceasefire? Nor that for unionists that last phrase "so that they can then be dealt with" must strike home with a chill?

So unionists who yearn for peace are on their guard and suspicious. And the loyalist paramilitaries have taken the message on board, as you might expect.

Yes, some unionists are aware that the O'Callaghan analysis is not the whole story and that there is an agonising reappraisal going on within the IRA, with the thinking realists seeking to jettison the traditional ideology of reliance on physical force.

How then does the nationalist front see the talks shaping up Dublin insists on adherence by both governments to the joint framework documents as the only hope. Gerry Adams has backed this up. No prospect of a resolution, he says, "without clear and firm guidance at government level". The British, he says, "must be a partner in the talks". How do unionists view this scenario?

UNIONISTS see the purpose of the pan nationalist alliance as being the weakening and ultimately the dismembering of the Union. Nothing to do with new administrations this is about basic national allegiance.

They see the talks as a replay of what happened at Sunningdale in 1974. As a bare minimum the nationalist alliance is demanding that the British government cajoles, pressures and, in the event, coerces unionists into a settlement based on the discredited and totally unacceptable framework documents. To them that means a castrated Stormont with every device weighted voting, a three member panel with a built in republican veto designed to prevent a unionist majority from expressing its right of consent and all Ireland bodies with executive powers to implement an ever expanding Irish dimension.

They see the talks not as compromise but as capitulation. Like Titus Andronicus they stand dramatically "as one upon a rock environed with a wilderness of sea".

That rock is the Principle of Consent.