Irish Foreign Minister Sees Broad Support for Talks On Future of N. Ireland
BOSTON — THE talks opened earlier this year to consider the future of Northern Ireland are "suspended," not "broken down," Irish Foreign Minister Gerard Collins told a group of Monitor editors recently.Moreover, according to Mr. Collins, considerable popular support exists for a renewal of those talks. He cited a July poll that found strong majorities of respondents in Ireland (87 percent), in Britain (79 percent), and even in Northern Ireland (73 percent) favoring resumption of discussions. "And 99 percent of the people within all jurisdictions fully recognize that violence is not the way and can never be the way," he said. Since 1985 there has been an agreement between the two governments, Collins said, "the main thrust of which is that it gives the government of Ireland an opportunity to present the viewpoint of the minority nationalist [or] Catholic population in Northern Ireland on issues of great concern to them. "That has been a considerable step forward in the arrangements between the two governments," he said. The mostly Protestant unionist community, which favors keeping Northern Ireland as part of Britain, has never accepted the accord. And so it was a great surprise to many this spring that the leaders of the two main unionist parties agreed to take part in talks on the future of the province, which began in May. The sessions were carefully timed to take place in a hiatus between regular sessions of the intergovernmental conference provided for by the accord. This maneuver let the unionists construe the accord as "suspended," since they had vowed not to enter into any talks while the accord was in effect. To have postponed sessions of the intergovernmental conference indefinitely, however, would have "eroded the foundations of the accord," Collins said, and so the decision was made to suspend the talks in July, before any real progress could be made. Of the unionist leadership's stonewalling, he said: "They've lost credibility like nobody's business." But he also described an interview he gave on Northern Ireland radio, before talks started. "The main thrust of what I was trying to say [was], 'Look, the prize for all of us at the end of this is peace.... Our approach to these talks is on a "no-winner, no-loser" basis. If we are winners, they lose, therefore we can't have agreement on that.' And I think that that struck the right chord." Excerpts from the discussion follow: What is the Republic's position on the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland? It started off with basic civil-rights demands in the mid-1960s. So the British Army came in to protect the minority population from the security forces in Northern Ireland at the time. Then, at that stage, the [Irish Republican Army] became involved and they stirred up the troubles between the population and the British Army, and they moved in on it and it became a different issue. The British Army is there, in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in an effort to defeat terrorism. Its absence or immediate withdrawal from Northern Ireland wouldn't guarantee us what we're looking for, peace and stability. How confident are you in the Royal Ulster Constabulary's efforts to get more Catholics or more nationalists into their ranks? They have not been successful in doing that, as of now. You will have to understand that there were a whole series of questions asked with regard to the impartiality or the lack of it [by the RUC]. I think on the whole that the RUC are making a very determined effort to try and win the confidence of the people in Northern Ireland. Has Prime Minister Major been much involved in the Anglo-Irish accord? He has, I would think, every intention of ensuring that a long-term solution will be found. But there is a British general election in the offing now. Would a Labor victory in the British general election affect British policy vis-a-vis Ireland? I believe that the policies of this government will also be the policies of the next government irrespective of who that government might be, because they are based on common sense and logic.