Major proposes election to revive Irish peace talks British leader's plan receives mixed reaction

January 25, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major offered Northern Ireland paramilitaries a choice yesterday -- give up their bullets or face a ballot.

Mr. Major proposed holding elections in Northern Ireland as a way to jump-start the peace process if paramilitary groups -- Catholic and Protestant alike -- continue to refuse to hand over their weapons ahead of all-party peace talks. But many say the proposal is another British roadblock to peace and a way to stymie the aspirations of the Irish Republican Army.

The announcement came hours after an international panel chaired by former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell told the British government to stop linking Northern Ireland peace talks to the disarming of the paramilitaries.

The panel gave Mr. Major room to maneuver, saying "an elective process could contribute to the building of confidence."

In a television interview, Mr. Major said that a vote to elect a pool of candidates from which peace negotiators would be chosen provided "a passport, a key, to all-party talks."

They also could enable Britain and pro-British Protestant parties in Northern Ireland to negotiate with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, without the IRA immediately turning in their weapons.

But the proposal met with mixed, even hostile reaction, reopening many of the old arguments over Northern Ireland between the majority Protestants who favor continued union with Great Britain, and the minority Catholics who seek to join Ireland. More than 3,000 civilians, policemen and British soldiers were killed during a 25-year period of "the troubles," which came to a halt when the paramilitary groups declared their cease-fire 17 months ago.

Catholic politicians fear an elected body would be dominated by the Protestant majority. Three previous elected bodies in Northern Ireland were dissolved because of political and religious conflict.

Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, said Prime Minister Major "has merely substituted one precondition for another. It's a bad idea."

John Hume, Northern Ireland's leading Catholic politician and head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, accused Mr. Major's government of proposing the election to "buy votes" to shore up a slim Parliamentary majority with the support of Ulster Unionist members.

The extraordinary exchange in Parliament ended as Mr. Major replied: "What I care about is trying to prevent the killing, the bloodshed, the hatred, the abuse and the sheer nastiness that has dominated too much of life for British citizens in Northern Ireland over far too many years.

"I am prepared to take risks for that; I am not prepared to buy votes for that."

David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionists, the leading Protestant party, praised the proposal and said, "We ought to set for ourselves a target for elections in April or May of this year."

Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, a key player in the peace process, gave tentative backing to the election proposal and urged "all of the parties to talk to each other."

The so-called International Body headed by Mr. Mitchell was formed late last year to try to break a yearlong stalemate over decommissioning paramilitary weapons in order to get talks started to end the conflict in Northern Ireland.

"It is clear beyond doubt that the vast majority of people of both [Catholic and Protestant] traditions want to turn away from the bitter past. It is that desire that creates the present opportunities," the former Senate majority leader told a Belfast news conference.

The panel delivered a reality check when it stated "we have concluded that the paramilitary organizations will not decommission any arms prior to all-party negotiations."

It said efforts should be made to destroy weapons once all-party talks begin.

The panel urged all sides to resolve the political issues through democratic means and abide by the terms of a peace agreement without resorting to violence. It called on the paramilitaries to renounce the use of force, commit themselves to total and verifiable disarmament and stop "punishment" beatings.

Confidence-building measures were also recommended.

The panel said that those forced to leave Northern Ireland under threat should be allowed to return. The whereabouts of those missing and feared dead should also be relayed to relatives. Governments should continue to take action to free political prisoners. Policing should be normalized.

The panel stated: "This is a critical time in the history of Northern Ireland. The peace process will move forward or this society could slip back to the horror of the past quarter century."

The commission has only advisory powers. It was formed last year in an attempt to break the stalled peace process.

In Washington, President Clinton said Mr. Mitchell's report offered a way to "achieve a just and lasting peace."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.