The political wing of the Irish Republican Army ended its isolation Friday, sitting down at a peace table for the first time with non-violent political parties from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
For the war-weary people of the island, this was the good news. The first session of the Peace and Reconciliation Forum, a training ground for imminent peace talks with the British, marked the entrance of Sinn Fein into high-stakes democratic politics _ an opportunity, said Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds, "to replace mutual mistrust with constructive engagement."
But the bad news surfaced quickly. Sinn Fein stands virtually alone in its insistence that the British push the Protestants in the north into accepting a united Ireland. Everyone else, including the major Roman Catholic parties in the south, stressed that the province should stay British as long as a majority of its citizens say so.
Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, stated firmly, "What is safe, and inviolable, is the principle of consent."
Gerry Adams doesn't agree. The Sinn Fein president argued, "The British government should seek to persuade the (Protestant) unionists that their future and best interests are served in the building of a new society with the rest of the Irish people." It would be "irresponsible . . . to permit the British to squander this opportunity."
Although Adams successfully persuaded the IRA to silence its guns, it has not softened its traditional aims.
The forum, intended to ease Sinn Fein into the democratic process, will meet weekly for a number of months. It is purely advisory, but Sinn Fein has a definite game plan: It hopes that all Catholic parties in Ireland will speak with one voice, in favor of a united Ireland. That would strengthen Sinn Fein's hand when it sits down with the British.
Adams argued Friday that consent, as defined by British Prime Minister John Major and Reynolds, stacks the deck for the Protestants, since they are in the majority in Northern Ireland. Peace should be achieved, he said, "with no one having special privileges and no group holding a power of veto."
So perhaps it's no surprise that the main unionist parties are boycotting the forum.
It's not clear how Sinn Fein expects to move the other Catholic parties away from the principle of consent. When asked, top Sinn Fein strategist Richard McAuley said: "It's an area that is going to have to be addressed. What the British have done is to get rid of the phrase "unionist veto' and replace it with "consent.'
Asked how Sinn Fein expects to sway the others, he said: "It ain't going to be easy. . . . It will require people to be prepared to be flexible and to move from their positions."
He was asked whether Sinn Fein was also prepared to be flexible.
"That's a matter of discussion, and we're not going to do that through the media. We all have to move. It's not a question of what's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable."