The previous opportunity for meaningful peace talks failed to get off the ground because of the intransigence of the Tory government. The Major government destroyed the opportunity presented by the IRA's long period of ceasefire by trying to make disarmament a precondition, not only for talks, but for simply getting to the meeting room door.
They were aided and abetted in this by Unionist politicians whose whole reason for being as political leaders hinges on the continuation of British rule in the north of Ireland.
Labour's landslide victory and the rout of the Tories has raised hopes of reviving the peace process in Ireland. Tony Blair talked to outgoing Irish premier, John Bruton, while they were in the United States. And Blair has now spoken to SDLP leader, John Hume, and Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble. He is poised to announce a proposal to take the peace process forward again.
It is expected that Blair's proposals will be similar to the earlier recommendations made by the Mitchell Committee.
And it is clear that everyone is listening -- with the possible exception of the inflexible Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley.
But there is still talk of "decommissioning" paramilitary weapons. And even though it seems this would no longer have to take place ahead of any talks -- it seems likely to be required as the talks proceed The obstacles thrown into the path of peace by the Tories have not gone away, they have just been moved further along the track.
Blair's proposals are an advance on the situation left by the last government. The peace process has been picked up again and some progress could be made.
But the obsession of the British ruling class with holding on to power and disarming the IRA (and let's face it, it's the IRA whose weapons they really want to get their hands on) will continue to blight any future peace talks if there's a lack of pressure for peace with justice from the labour and progressive movements.
The quietism on Ireland has to end. We should not tolerate any longer politicians who talk of peace but whose only idea of peace is the surrender of Irish Republicans.
There must not be different criteria for peace talks in Ireland than that applied everywhere else -- that means all-Party talks must come first. Only when peace talks are successful can the participants begin to discuss matters like the decommissioning of weapons.
We need to challenge the carefully nurtured, pro-imperialist view that all sides have equal responsibility for the struggle in Ireland This has never been true. The responsibility lies with Britain who clings tenaciously to its oldest colony and maintains an army of occupation on Irish soil.
British imperialism likes to wring its hands at the suffering of Ireland and pretend it is only trying to help. But it is British imperialism that has created this suffering and it is British imperialism that could end it any time it wanted by stating its intention to withdraw, allowing the people of Ireland the right to determine their own future.
Colonial powers have always used arrogant arguments to justify their oppression. They cast the peoples of their colonies in the role of irresponsible children who cannot be trusted to run their own affairs.
This insufferable nonsense has to be exposed for what it is -- a threadbare veil to cover its own irresponsible and criminal behaviour.
If the Labour government does start along the path to new talks the obstacles to progress must be cleared out of the way. And we too should speak out and refuse to give tacit assent to any further duplicity.
Tony Blair said conditions for inclusion rested with the IRA announcing a ceasefire, and six weeks after that, Sinn Fein would be brought into the process for substantive talks.
His Commons statement outlined Irish-British government proposals on decommissioning twhich has the key objective of setting up a special body in parallel to the talks.
Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, interviewed on Channel Four on Wednesday evening, said "the British and Irish governments have worked for a number of weeks" to get the parties in the talks to agree on the document "so that we can move the talks process forward into the substantive discussions."
Otherwise, she said, the "credibility of the talks will be in question." As to whether weapons would have to be handed over from day one of talks in parallel, Mo Mowlam said that would be a matter for the "talks process in Belfast this week and next." She said that "in the end its about trust and confidence."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is reported to have cautiously welcomed the proposals, as we go to press, but he wants to examine the details before making a full response. SDLP leader David Hume welcomed the proposals as "rational and reasonable".
The announcement comes immediately following the publication of a 12-page Angle-Irish document last Tuesday, a draft of which appeared in the Irish Times, which has as its central focus the setting up of an independent commission to address the decommissioning block on progress in talks.
While remaining independent of both British and Irish governments, the decommissioning body would be appointed by them following consultations with the parties currently meeting in Stormont Castle. It recommends a talks liaison sub-committee and another on confidence building measures.
This is largely consistent with the report produced by President Clinton's envoy US Senator George Mitchell who is chair of the Stormont negotiations.
The move is designed to get current talks on track for substantive negotiations in September and to be completed by May 1998. The "parallel" process of talks, in preparation for this, has been loosely designated for sometime next month.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has recently said that the Labour govemment was handling the core issues "in a more positive way". He told the party's Six County AGM in Dungannon, County Tyrone on Monday that: "Sinn Fein has placed no preconditions at all upon a real process of credible negotiations."
He went on: "We believe that such negotiations, if they are to lead to a democratic peace senlement, must be based on equality -- which the present talks lack -- and must be inclusive and aimed at resolving the core constitutional, political and other matters which underpin the conflict."
But while recognising the Labour government's "different approach", he said the reality still is that the obstacles to credible negotiations remain and that decommissioning was key to past failures.
Sinn Fein chair Mitchel McLaughlin's view is that the British government has "largely accepted the logic of the position that Sinn Fein have been arguing for some considerable time, that disarmament discussions should properly and legitimately take place alongside all other Issues -- that is within a negotiating process."
For the talks to be credible, he said, the talks must be: inclusive, substantive, agree a fixed time frame and include confidence building measures which includes the release of political prisoners. Mitchel McLaughlin, speaking on Radio 4's Today programme said that if all these issues were resolved satisfactorily, it would be "a giant step forwards".
Sim Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuiness, speaking last Sunday at the Wolf Tone commemoration, said: "If it is indeed this govermnent's intention to address issues of equality and demilitarisation, then clarity on these issues is essential.
"Today, there is a lot of apprehension. Given the fluidity of the situation, it is understandable. Sinn Fein seeks to give leadership. We will not be deflected from our historic task.
"Making peace on this island is a shared responsibility. The matters which we are seeking to have removed are not Sinn Fein preconditions. They were put in the path of the peace process by a British government. They can only be removed by a British government. We have sought to assist and to be helpful."
And speaking on Channel Four news last Tuesday, former Irish Premier Albert Reynolds emphasised that an important part of confidence building would come with both a satisfactory resolution of decommissioning as well as a full inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre 25 years ago.
Members of the US sub committee on international operations and human rights condemned Britain's failure to bring justice and peace to Ireland over three decades of conflict.
Speaking in relation to the use of plastic bullets, New York Republican Congressman Benjamin Gilman said: "It is particularly ironic that these plastic bullets are not used by British authorities in serious race or youth riots in places like Leeds and elsewhere in England."
He thought "nothing better iilustrates the 'second-class status' of the nationalist community in the north of Ireland."
LABOUR Home Secretary Jack Straw last week abandoned his pre-election promise of "no more private prisons." But last week in the House of Commons he said that "an urgent operational requirement" to overcome cell shortages had led him to invite security companies to open two new jails and to renew the contract for a third for a year.
Before the 1 May general election, Jack Straw said he had "fundamental objections to prisons run by the private sector".
And he told the Prison Officers' Association magazine Gatelodge: "We cannot break contracts that already exist, but we should certainly make no new ones, and within the existing budget, shall take back into the public sector the privatised prisons as soon as contractually possible."
Then last week he admitted to the House of Commons that the current overcrowding crisis - brought on by the Tory predecessor's policy of heavier prison sentences -- meant he had to agree the two new private prisons.
They will be built at Agecroft near Salford, Greater Manchester and Pucklechurch, near Bristol.
But the Labour government does have an alternative of course -- to abandon its other election pledge not to raise more taxes on the rich. Or Jack Straw could reverse Michael Howard's draconian sentencing policies and ease the crisis by releasing a large number of minor offenders.
But Straw clearly feels this would make him appear to be soft on crime.
The prison service director general, Richard Tilt, said that new estimates predict that jails will urgently need another 2,000 places by the end of next year.
The prison population is currently at a record 61,250. "We are absolutely at the margin," said Mr Tilt. "It is very difficult to cope on a day to day basis."
The Cheif Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham last Tuesday indicated one way to lessen the overcrowding crisis when he spoke out against the unnecessary imprisonment of pregnant women.
Currently around 2,600 women are in prison and about 400 of them are pregnant. Yet 80 per cent of women prisoners are behind bars for non-violent offences.
Many are there because they cannot afford to pay fines and their childcare responsibilities make it hard for them to comply with community service orders unless childcare is provided while they do it.
Yet when these women are imprisoned the state is forced to supply childcare. Mothers are separated from small children and families broken up.
The children are thereby punished by the state for their mothers' financial plight. Some women are imprisoned simply for failing to pay for TV licences.
Sir David Ramsbotham said: "It's a pretty restrictive environment in which to conduct the first period of a child's life -- quite apart from the inevitable problems of looking after the mother in the immediate aftermath.
"I think one has got to be very careful in deciding whether these women actually need to be in prison. They're hardly likely to constitute a great risk to the public."
And he called on the government and the judiciary to find some other way of punishing mothers convicted of non-violent offences.
Jack Straw also said he would be unable to return Blakenhurst prison near Redditch, Worcestershire to the public sector, "given the current budgetary pressures".
At present it is run by United Kingdom Detention Services and the contract is likely to be renewed for another three years - "the minimum practical period".
Then, to try to assuage criticism for his policy U-tum, Jack Straw proposed the possibility of a remarkable fudge of public and private sectors whereby the private sector would build and maintain new prisons while the public sector runs them -- another version of the private finance initiative (PFl).
THE GROUP of Seven industrialised countries and the Russian Federation ended their three-day summit in Denver, Colorado this week pledging to meet global challenges in the next century but papering over their differences on some major issues.
"We've agreed on new steps to organise our nations to last a strong foundation in the 21st century, to prepare our people and our economies for the global market-place, to meet new transnational threats to our security," United States President Bill Clinton said at the close of the meeting.
"Globalisation brings with it problems none of us can conquer alone," he declared.
In the communique, leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States along with Russia and the European Union said: "The process of globalisation, a major factor underlying the growth for world prosperity in the last 50 years, is now advancing rapidly and broadly".
"More openness and integration across the global economy creates opportunities for increased prosperity. Our task, as we enter the 21st century, is to make the most of these opportunities".
The leaders called for a worldwide ban on human cloning, further research to achieve an AIDS vaccine and a new fight against "high-tech" computer-assisted crime.
But differences remain with the Group over the US debt to the United Nations, Bosnia and the environment. Russia's full participation is still in question.
The Europeans want a 15 per cent cut in carbon dioxide and other gases to combat global warming by 2010, but America, which France says is "one of the world's largest polluters" rejected it and upheld "a realistic and pragmatic approach" to the problem.
The communique papered over the dispute saying "our ultimate goal must be to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at an acceptable level".
The US owes the UN some 1.3 billion dollars back dues. Japan and others argued that Washington should pay the money unconditionally.
But the Americans mapped out a partial payment plan, with many preconditions, demanding that the UN cut its budget and staff, as well as reducing the US contribudon to its finances.
Clinton prevailed. Without mentioning any names the final communique said: "The UN system must be placed on a firm financial footing through full and timely payment of obligations and development of a more logical and equitable scale of assessment".
On Bosnia the summit issued a statement urging the Balkan leaders to fully comply with the Dayton Peace Accords signed in 1995, But there was no agreement over the future of the Nato "stabilisation forces" in Bosnia.
Washington has repeatedly said it would withdraw all its 8,500 Troops from the region by June 1998. But the European Union leaders fear that the withdrawal could lead to another round of bloodshed.
The most historic aspect of the summit was Russia's participation pressed for by the United States and reluctantly accepted by the rest.
But Russian President Boris Yeltsin was still excluded from the economic and financial discussions in Denver. He met with US business leaders while the G7 discussed macro-economic policies without him.
Japan and France are opposed to Russian participation on the economic agenda. And analysts believe that it will take at least another two or three years before Russia, whose economic growth is still minus six per cent, can fully participate in the G-7's economic discussions.
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BRITISH Airways cabin staff belonging to the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa),which is part of the Transport and General Workers' Union, last week voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.
The action is in protest against company attempts to impose new terms and conditions without any consultation with the union.
And a series of dirty tricks aimed to intimidate the workforce has proved counter productive and produced a 73 per cent vote for the action, with 6,400 in favour and 1,770 against.
BA has written to union members warning that they face the sack and could be sued through the courts for any loss the company incurs if the strike action goes ahead.
In the letter, which was sent out earlier this week, the strikers were threatened with loss of promotion, loss of early retirement and severe financial penalties.
And in the same letter it has told would-be scabs that there will be secret coach collections of staff from surrounding hotels to smuggle them through picket lines.
Others have been offered up to £75 per journey for taxis to breach the picket lines.
Union representatives say the threats have angered workers and only made them more determined.
BA also faces industrial action from TWGU members of ground crew over company plans to hive off the in-flight catering services.
BA has been preparing for industrial action on many fronts for a long time. Earlier this year it gave secret training to managers to do baggage handling and other jobs in order to undermine future strikes.
The company has also appointed a recruitment agency to employ hundreds of casual labour workers to cover any possible industrial action.
It has asked the giant agency manpower to recruit 600 staff for aircraft ramp operations at Heathrow in the expectation of a strike.
It is clear the company has a carefully planned and premeditated strategy to break all union organisation among its employees.
It is part of a massive restructuring plan aimed to save the company £l billion.
But it is not likely to be easy. The strike action is planned to take effect during the peak summer holiday season and hastily recruited scabs are unlikely to have the skills to fill the gaps.
Bassa spokesperson George Ryde said: "All we are asking for is to have a negotiation. It's good to talk."