Major gives Irish another chance Peace negotiations on N. Ireland can start if truce is reinstated

February 13, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- British Prime Minister John Major won't let the Northern Ireland peace effort die without a fight.

Last night, he gave Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, another chance to rejoin a peace process battered by Friday's IRA bombing in east London that killed two and injured dozens.

"Sinn Fein and the IRA have a choice," Mr. Major said in a rare televised prime time address. "Only when they commit themselves unequivocally to peace and reinstate the cease-fire can they have a voice and a stake in Northern Ireland's future.

"But if they reject democratic principles and use violence, they can expect no sympathy and no quarter."

He vowed: "The IRA will never bomb their way to the bargaining table."

Mr. Major's tough words and somber appearances, both on television and earlier in the day before a hushed session in the House of Commons, underscored his determination to quickly move the country past the Docklands bombing that signaled the end of the IRA's 17-month cease-fire.

"If we are pushed back, we will start again," he said. "If we are pushed back again, we will start again. And if we are pushed back a third time, we will start again."

Last night, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, sounding increasingly desperate as he seeks to influence guerrillas while trying to retain a place near the bargaining table, accused Mr. Major of "betraying the peace process."

"What the British did was to continue with a war policy, to try and outmaneuver and divide," he said on television.

Mr. Adams added: "When John Major says that he's not even going to talk to us, unless an organization [the IRA] over which we have no control ceases its activities , then he's back to the old agenda and he's a British prime minister who is going nowhere."

But mainstream politicians lauded Mr. Major's appearances, and the Irish government labeled his appearances as "constructive."

Before the cease-fire that took hold Sept. 1, 1994, the 25-year "troubles" of Northern Ireland claimed more than 3,000 lives. Unionists, generally consisting of the majority Protestant population, favor continued union with Great Britain. Nationalists, composed mainly of the minority Roman Catholics, favor a united Ireland.

Getting all sides to the bargaining table has been a difficult task.

The Irish government has proposed a gathering where all groups would be called together for a series of separate negotiations leading to all-party talks.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, yesterday proposed a referendum in which voters would be asked if they were opposed to violence and wanted all-party talks.

Mr. Major's plan is to hold elections to a Northern Irish body that would be convened for a brief period before all-party talks. He said the election gambit was "a door to full negotiation," adding, they are "a way forward, not a means of delaying the process."

The proposal is the same one he made Jan. 24, hours after an international body led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell released a report urging parties to begin negotiations while working out a way to get rid of weapons.

The election plan, aimed at moving the deadlocked peace process, wasn't popular then and it's not all that popular now. Catholic politicians fear being overwhelmed in the new body. Sinn Fein claims the British are setting up roadblocks to all-party talks.

And some say it was the proposal that was a "last straw" that drove the IRA back to bombs. News reports from Dublin yesterday indicated that the IRA's bomb Friday was a one-time action to influence the stalled peace negotiations, and not the start of a full-scale terror campaign.

Though Mr. Major is pushing the election idea, he acknowledged his mind was "not closed" to other potential routes to the bargaining table.

It figures to be a tense few days as all sides digest the proposal and everyone waits for the next move by the secretive and well-armed IRA.

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