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  Panel Proposes Compromise to Launch Northern Ireland Talks

By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 25, 1996; Page A18

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND, JAN. 24 -- An international panel headed by former senator George Mitchell offered a compromise today to end the deadlock over Northern Ireland peace talks, suggesting Britain drop its insistence that the Irish Republican Army begin disarming before entering negotiations.

Sinn Fein, the outlawed IRA's legal political arm, initially embraced the recommendations, issued here by Mitchell and his panel. In London, Prime Minister John Major also endorsed the suggestions in a general way. But at the same time, Major proposed an alternative precondition -- elections to choose the negotiators -- which immediately generated a new controversy that seemed to leave the future of peace talks in as much doubt as ever.

The attempt to bring peace to Northern Ireland has been stalled for months over the IRA's refusal to begin disposing of weapons as a precondition set by the British government for serious negotiations toward a political settlement of the 25-year-old Catholic-Protestant conflict.

The governments of Britain and Ireland on Nov. 29 appointed the three-member commission, headed by the retired senator from Maine, to consider ways to resolve that stalemate. After weeks of study, the Mitchell commission recommended a compromise: decommissioning weapons while simultaneously negotiating. It proposed in addition that all sides commit themselves in advance to six principles, including "democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues" and "the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations."

Major's counterproposal, to let the negotiations begin after an election in Northern Ireland to choose negotiators, was quickly and angrily rejected by Sinn Fein as well as more moderate representatives of the minority Catholic population in the province. It also was received coolly in Dublin, where Irish Prime Minister John Bruton declined to endorse or reject it.

That appeared, for the moment, to leave the peace process back where it was -- mired in what Mitchell earlier had called "vast inventories of historical recrimination."

The conflict in Northern Ireland between the majority Protestant community and Catholics has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the past generation as terrorist organizations from both sides battled each other and British security forces. It is a continuation of hundreds of years of sectarian bitterness and the partition of Ireland by Britain in the 1920s into what became the independent and overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland in the south and the majority-Protestant British province of Northern Ireland across the border.

Northern Ireland itself is now divided politically among Protestant "unionist" parties, who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, and largely Catholic "nationalist" parties with the ultimate goal of reunifying the island.

The current chapter began in the fall of 1994, when joint British and Irish initiatives led to the declaration of a cease-fire by paramilitary organizations on each side. While the underground radicals have ceased sectarian bombings and shootings, they continue to mete out "punishment" beatings within their own communities. And the unionist and nationalist parties have yet to sit down to work out an arrangement to guarantee the peace, in part because of the standoff over weapons decommissioning.

Major and the unionists argue that the IRA's commitment to a peaceful settlement cannot be taken seriously without some concrete gesture on weapons. Sinn Fein and the IRA counter that such a gesture is an unacceptable form of "surrender."

Mitchell and his two colleagues -- former Finnish prime minister Harri Holkeri and retired Canadian general John de Chastelain -- concluded in their report that Britain should accept that its weapons precondition was a dead end because it was totally unacceptable to Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The idea of elections to choose an assembly to conduct negotiations is a favorite of Northern Ireland's unionist parties -- which represent the 60 percent Protestant majority. It has consistently been opposed by nationalist groups such as Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, and the more moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, headed by John Hume.

They cite, with disdain, elections in the 1960s for a Northern Ireland assembly that collapsed amid the sectarian violence that began in 1969.

The Mitchell panel, in its 20-page report, took note of proposals for "an elective process" so long as it was "broadly acceptable" but did not explicitly recommend it.

Major, however, singled it out when addressing the House of Commons and offered it as an alternative to his demand for pre-negotiation weapons decommissioning. He said the government is prepared to accept, and sponsor, election of negotiators in Northern Ireland as a confidence-building measure.

Unionist politicians warmly endorsed Major's proposal. But both Hume and Adams immediately denounced it and bitterly accused Major of substituting one unacceptable precondition to another. The prime minister acted, they charged, to keep unionists on his side in the House of Commons, where his Conservative Party's majority has dwindled to five.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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