Next week, or shortly thereafter both the Irish and the British governments convene a meeting with a view to publishing the deal they hammered out during 30 hours of intensive negotiation at the beginning of this month. This deal is intended to bring about the restoration of devolved government in Belfast as swiftly as possible. There were problems enough, with Unionists and republicans quibbling over details. But the substantial arms dump discovered in south Belfast at the weekend has planted another obstacle in the way of a hoped for resolution. What is more, the arms are new, and the timing devices ready for use.
Under such circumstances it is not enough for Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to shrug his shoulders and say that people should “not be getting into a tizzy” about it. This has been the casual approach to various controversies that Sinn Fein has assumed over the last two years, from the arrest of the three republicans in Bogota, to the raid on Castlereagh Police station and the Stormont spying scandal.
Not taking seriously the concerns of Sinn Fein’s partners in the peace process is a way of showing contempt for them. The only way to remove people’s fears is to prove them groundless, not dismiss them as being trivial – or, as Sinn Fein often does, hint that they are being held for sinister motives. The republican leadership knows by now how those fears can be removed. It is not by resorting to the jaded rhetoric, which stresses the fact that the guns are not being used. The process has gone beyond that, as both London and Dublin have made it painfully clear.
In fact, recent events have shown that Adams’ assertion is inaccurate. Republicans in South Armagh used guns that took the life of a fellow republican just two weeks ago. Or does that death not count in their political calculations?
Reports suggest that the Irish government has made it plain in recent meetings with republicans that the sell-by date of such rhetoric has long gone, as have the manipulative attitudes that lie behind it. The Irish minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen, was as explicit as he can be under the circumstances. At a speech in Kilkenny this week he said:
“Now is not the time to play the process long, to seek to extract one concession too far, too assume that the doors of people who have been endlessly patient and supportive remain as generously open as they have in the past.” Translated this into less diplomatic language he is saying “get on with it”.
No party was named, but it is clear about which one the minister was speaking.
When the British and Irish governments get together to publish their proposals, they do so in the expectation that they will not become the further excuse for more delays, quibbling and prevarications. Neither the British Prime Minister Tony Blair nor his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern will be sitting around Hillsborough Castle while Unionists and republicans unpick this or that detail. Prevarication will kill this deal. Only action can save it. And nobody can be in any doubt what forms those actions must take.