Risks high in London's tacit U-turn

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 1996, 12:00am

THE risks are high but the British Government has made a U-turn in its Northern Ireland policy, gambling that elections and a tacit acceptance that terrorists might no longer have to hand over their arms before talks might bring peace.

The gamble lies in the fact the elections - aimed at producing a small body out of which negotiators with a democratic mandate can be drawn - may be rejected by the minority republican community.

To them, the gesture that was first suggested by rival Unionists smacks of diminishing their say and minimising Dublin's influence in the peace process.

Among republican activists, the fact the elections were a Unionist idea indicates Mr Major may be as much bent on retaining Unionist support for his slim majority at Westminster than on finding peace.

Despite the wide support for Senator Mitchell's report on arms decommissioning on all sides, the prospects for lasting peace in the 26-year-old Troubles are still bogged down.

Both the IRA and loyalist gangs have refused to hand over arms ahead of any peace settlement.

Senator Mitchell concluded the only way forward was a compromise. While the IRA and loyalist group would refuse to decommission any of their weapons ahead of a full settlement, they might do so, he hoped, once talks towards such a settlement had begun.

The British Government has tacitly admitted it will no longer stand in the way of such an approach.

'Such an approach obviously represents a compromise,' admitted Senator Mitchell. 'If the peace process is to move forward this impasse must be overcome.' But the dilemma now facing all parties is that there are many elements of his report rejected by one group or another. For instance, it calls for an amnesty for those involved in handing over arms and says any weapon recovered should not be examined or used as evidence in a court case.

That might be a very hard pill indeed for the thousands who have lost loved ones in the Troubles to swallow.