From MARTIN MACMILLAN in Belfast
Official Sinn Fein, known as Republican Clubs in Northern Ireland, has decided to end its policy of abstention.
In future if elected Official Sinn Fein representatives will take their seats on local government bodies, in Parliament, and in the Northern Ireland Consultative Assembly which will be elected next year. Those who have been elected to district councils in Northern Ireland have been instructed to take their seats and play a part in the work of the councils.
This is one of the few slight but nevertheless significant and encouraging signs of a break in the deadlock that has seized Ulster politics since the resignation of the power-sharing Executive last May. It was mentioned by Mr Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as a recognition of the importance of pursuing political objectives by political means.
Official Sinn Fein is not, of course, the same organisation as Provisional Sinn Fein which, although legal in Northern Ireland since last January, is linked with the Provisional IRA and presumably condones the terror campaign of that movement.
Unfortunately the decision of Official Sinn Fein to help lower the temperature in Northern Ireland was not welcomed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party with the tolerance shown by Mr Rees.
The SDLP reaction to the ending of the abstentionist policy was described at best as "lukewarm" and at the worst some members of the oartv accused the officials of hypocrisy In that they have decided to play a normal role in politics while internment is still in force.
Apparently the Official Sinn Fein has been criticising the SDLP for participating in politics and thus, in their opinion, condoning internment.
But that is a petty point. The main thing is that the ending of abstention does something to help towards a normalisation of politics in Ulster. That was Mr Rees's point when he mentioned the matter in the Commons debate on Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the SDLP itself is going to be asked, at its annual conference in January, to drop its views on the "Irish dimension" and to forget about the re-unification of Ireland, in the hope that such a change of policy would reassure the Loyalists and make powersharing more acceptable to them.
The suggestion comes from the SDLP's North Belfast branch which has proposed that, in the interests of peace in Northern Ireland, there should be more emphasis on local cooperation between Catholics and Protestanst and less on the "all-Ireland dimension."
North Belfast asks the party to recognise that so long as the Loyalist's fear absorption in an all-Ireland Republic there will be ever-increasing bitterness between Catholics and Protestants. They might have added that as the Loyalists are a two-to-one majority in Northern Ireland they can make life dangerous and unpleasant for the Catholics.
The leaders of the SDLP, all of whom are elected representatives, must wonder, however, how their Catholic constituents would react to such a change of policy. Does the Catholic community as a whole in Northern Ireland still strongly favour the re-unification of the country or have they long given up all hope of seeing an all-Ireland state in the lifetime of the present generations?
Some of the more tolerant Loyalists and Some prominent Catholics as well have been advising the Catholic community to forget about a united Ireland, because not only do the Loyalists oppose it but the people and politicians in the South of Ireland do not want it either. In pursuing the objective of a united Ireland the Catholics of Northern Ireland are, according to these views, very much in a minority all over the country.
) Nonetheless the reunification of Ireland has been one of the basic principles of SDLP policy since the party was formed four years ago. SDLP leaders say that reunification is a long-term aim. In the meantime they would want to establish some sort of link between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the "Irish dimension," in the form, perhaps, of a Council of Ireland.
But has such a Council any hope at all if the entire Loyalist community, including the more moderate Unionists, are totally against it?
That is one of the plain facts that North Belfast branch is asking the SDLP to recognise. They probably also realise that if the party drops the all-Ireland dimension there will be sighs of relief in Dublin where, it is evident, few politicians see any point in pressing the Irish dimension in present circum
The third sign of a break in Ulster's political deadlock has come from Mr John Taylor, Unionist politician and junior Minister in a former Stormont Government. r)/1( Taylor, who has not hitherto been noted for showing any spirit of tolerance towards the "Nationalist community," now says he is willing to meet the leaders of the SDLP to discuss the future of Northern Ireland.
He is convinced apparently that there can be no solution to Ulster's problems if the elected representatives of both sections of the population are not party to it. That is why he has suggested talks.
Until now the SDLP has shown a willingness to talk to the Loyalists but it has been the Loyalists who have refused. If, therefore, Mr Taylor thinks there should be talks it is up to him to convince his colleagues in the United Ulster Unionist Council that talks should cornmence.
In addition to expressing his willingness to meet the SDLP Mr Taylor has, however, warned that even if the two sides agreed on a formula for the future there could be no peace and no hope of a political settlement so long as the Provisional IRA continued its terror campaign.
The Provisional IRA, as many other people as well as Mr Taylor already recognise, is making the work of peaceful reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants impossible. I he Catholics also know this. Their problem is how to express disapproval of the Provisional IRA. They have expressed their feelings in the high votes they give to the SDLP and the poor support they have shown for both the Republican Clubs and the Provisional Sinn Fein.
But even the pattern of voting in the Catholic constituencies does not convince the Loyalists. They assume that because the Provisional IRA operates .from Catholic areas that it has the support of the Catholic population. Apparently the army, if not also the Secretary or State, makes the same assumption. The result is that the Catholics suffer on all sides because of the Provisional IRA's campaign.
But has the SDLP, with all its political influence in the Catholic community, and the Catholic population at large been doing enough to counteract the Provisionals?
That is the question that has been raised by Mr Vincent McCloskey, a leading member of the SDLP. In a forthright speech to a local branch of his party in South Armagh Mr McCloskey asked the people themselves to look at their failure to do anything to stop violence. They should be more active, he said, in helping to formulate policies for peace.
In other words if the Catholics of Northern Ireland are opposed to the Provisional IRA they should make that clear by their words and their deeds and not merely by their votes at election times.