The Dublin government intends to restart talks with Sinn Féin next week despite continuing fallout over allegations that the Provisional IRA was behind the Northern Bank robbery in Belfast.
However, the rival nationalist SDLP appeared divided over its approach, after two senior members suggested the effective exclusion of Sinn Féin from the peace process.
Talks involving Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP for the revival of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a return of the power-sharing devolved administration in Belfast broke down late last year over DUP demands for symbolic photographs of IRA decommisssioning.
Police chief Hugh Orde’s decision to declare his belief that the IRA was behind the massive pre-Christmas bank raid has polarised opinion and stiffened DUP opposition to any contacts with Sinn Féin.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told reporters in China that contact with republicans would be preferable to no contact.
He said: “I have to make a calculated judgment: is non-engagement better?
“My sense is that non-engagement has never worked in my lifetime, even if I don’t feel at most enthusiastic. My sense is that I have to engage,” he said.
“We have some difficulties in the peace process. We have not been able to get a fully comprehensive agreement as we had worked for so long and so hard. We are in a stalemate position. The one thing that I am conscious of is that, whatever the arguments, we have to try and find a way on.
“The one thing I know in my political lifetime is that when there is stalemate and a vacuum that is when we get into problems,” he said.
Dublin officials have said “the bar will now be set higher” for Sinn Féin and the IRA, indicating that further republican concessions may be demanded in any new negotiations.
Dublin’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, said it was not “business as usual” for Sinn Féin in the peace process. Explicit assurances would now be demanded in regard to what he described as IRA “criminality”. He suggested a role for the Independent Monitoring Commission in the verification of IRA activity.
The IMC has already issued two contentious reports on IRA activity based on briefings from the British Crown forces, and imposed financial sanctions on Sinn Féin. Republicans view the body as a front for British ‘securocrats’ opposed to the peace process.
After a meeting in Dublin to discuss the political situation, Mr Ahern and British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy claimed to be “100 per cent convinced” that the IRA was behind the bank raid.
Questioned about financial sanctions against Sinn Féin, or the creation of a Stormont scrutiny committee which would not include republicans, Mr Murphy said he was still considering his options.
Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty warned that “sanctions and the politics of exclusion” would not move the peace process forward.
“Does anyone seriously believe that sanctions, exclusion or discrimination will do anything to move us forward? Of course not.
“Those advocating exclusion are working to their own narrow agendas. They are ignoring the reality that Sinn Féin’s right to participation in the political process stems from our substantial electoral mandate.
Mr Doherty pointed out that the British government ha no mandate in Ireland “and it has no right to sanction or discriminate against those chosen by the Irish electorate to represent them. These are the failed policies of the past.
“Whatever about the current situation the reality is that we will only make progress on the basis of dialogue, inclusivity, negotiation and accommodation.”
Meanwhile, long serving SDLP MP Eddie McGrady, facing a tight election battle with Sinn Féin’s Caitriona Ruane in May, said his party should not rule out joining with the DUP in a restored administration at Stormont and the exclusion of Sinn Féin.
Mr McGrady said there would need to be some “new thinking”.
“If they [Sinn Féin] want to exclude themselves by their extremes there is very little you can do about that. Those extremes should not be a barrier to the evolution of democracy and devolved government in Northern Ireland.”
SDLP deputy leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell also said the idea should be considered. However, SDLP leader Mark Durkan quickly ruled it out.
He said despite accusations from Sinn Féin, the SDLP’s proposals for “a way forward” did not include exclusion.
“If because of actions of paramilitaries and parties we cannot get the executive soon, we have already put forward proposals to make progress consistent with the agreement without going for the failed prior assembly, deep suspension or voluntary coalition,” he insisted.
“Our proposals mean restoring the assembly and getting the north/south agenda moving again. They are the way forward and the governments should act on them.”
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly, who had urged the SDLP to distance itself from McGrady’s remarks, said there were “clearly serious leadership issues now for the SDLP.
“There is a lack of direction and cohesion at the top of that party. However these problems should not be allowed to damage the Good Friday Agreement project.
“Nationalists and republicans have stood firm with the Good Friday Agreement. They expect their political representatives to do likewise.”