By Dave Riley
It is now certain that Sinn Féin will be included in the peace talks process when it resumes in September. Despite persistent unionist intransigence, the initiative, for the moment, rests with Sinn Féin as it pushes forward key issues such as the union with Britain and demilitarisation.
In a early break through, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness debated Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionist Party on British television. The concession by the UUP to debate Sinn Féin face-to-face augured well for future negotiations, despite unionist rhetoric to the contrary.
Unionist resolve to boycott the talks is beginning to crack and some representatives have confirmed that they will be sitting down with Sinn Féin when full negotiations on the future of the six counties commence at Stormont on September 15.
These include David Adams of the Ulster Democratic Party which represents the Ulster Defence Association, the largest of the loyalist death-squad organisations. Members of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to another of the loyalist death-squad organisations, the Ulster Volunteer Force, are also expected to sit down with Sinn Féin.
The Reverend Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionist Party and Robert McCartney's UK Unionists have already pulled out of the talks in protest at Sinn Féin's admission, and at the absence of a guarantee that Irish Republican Army weapons will be handed in once the dialogue begins.
David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party is still undecided. Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, has responded: "Obviously we cannot do it all on our own, but it is our fervent hope the Ulster Unionists will decide to remain within the process and carry out the responsibilities their electorate placed upon them as well." The decision of the Ulster Unionists is expected early next month, once senior officials finish private consultations with party members and supporters.
If the bulk of the loyalist forces attend the talks, Sinn Féin will be seen to have won another significant victory by exposing unionist sectarianism.
The party's strategy this year has been not only to assert its base of support within the nationalist community, but also, by aggressively seizing the initiative, to sow dissent within unionist ranks.
Sinn Féin's electoral victories and the nationalists' mass mobilisations against the threat of another marching season like last year, have guaranteed that any peace talks must address the long-standing oppression of the nationalist community in the six counties.
With Adams, McGuinness and Sinn Féin's new Irish MP, Caoimhghin O Caolain, due to visit the United States in early September, there is sure to be more manoeuvring by all parties involved — and those not directly involved — in the formal negotiations.
While the IRA has declared a truce and Sinn Féin has approached the splinter Irish National Liberation Army to do likewise, the only concession to come from Westminster has been a change of hats.
British troops are now deployed wearing regimental head dress instead of helmets. A Sinn Féin spokesperson said this was a "cosmetic exercise which is irrelevant to the needs of nationalists. Since the IRA cease-fire on July 20, the pattern and intensity of British army patrolling in nationalist areas has not changed.
"It's not the hard hats we want to be rid of, it's the hard heads under them we want off the streets as a prelude to their return home as quickly as possible."
Meanwhile, members of a senior unionist order have called off plans to march through the flashpoint Catholic Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast. A sectarian parade through the area on July 12 was voluntarily re-routed after a mass mobilisation of nationalists spurred to action after an Orange Order parade had been brutally forced through the 100% nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown the preceding week.