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Bush Tries to Restart Stalled N. Ireland Talks

President Calls Leading Protestant to Urge Resumption of Power-Sharing Pact

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page A25

LONDON, Nov. 26 -- President Bush on Friday telephoned Ian Paisley, leader of a Protestant-dominated party in Northern Ireland that has resisted power-sharing with its main Roman Catholic counterpart, to urge a breakthrough in the long-stalled process of political reconciliation in the British province.

The White House said Bush would soon convey a similar message in a call to Gerry Adams, who heads Sinn Fein, a predominantly Catholic party linked to the paramilitary Irish Republican Army.

Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, said a deal would be "a huge challenge."

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Disarming Northern Ireland

The calls appeared to be part of a complex effort coordinated by the British and Irish governments to pressure both sides to achieve a compromise by next week that would reinstate a joint administration and assembly that were suspended two years ago.

Paisley, who heads the Democratic Unionist Party, said he had held a "long and very useful conversation" with Bush, who has taken a low-profile approach to Northern Ireland, in contrast to the activism practiced by his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

"I told him I'd like to be in a position to make a deal, but that any deal must be fair and must address to my satisfaction and my electorate's satisfaction all the fundamental issues that have blocked progress for so long," Paisley said at a news conference in Belfast.

Bush, who was in Texas, said he phoned Paisley to try to "close the agreement that they've been working on for quite a while. . . . Anything I can do to help keep the process moving forward, I'm more than willing to do." He did not offer details of the conversation.

Adams said at a news conference in Belfast that a deal was possible but would require political will. "That is a huge challenge for all of us," but particularly for the Democratic Unionists, he said.

The sticking point, officials have said, are demands from the Protestant side that the outlawed IRA, which has maintained a cease-fire since July 1997 after a three-decade war against British rule, destroy its remaining weapons before witnesses and disband.

Protestants have demanded photographic proof that the weapons have been rendered unusable and want the IRA to make a definitive statement declaring a permanent end to its armed struggle, in which more than 3,000 people were killed.

Paisley, who is 78 and in ill health, has long been the uncompromising symbol of Protestant defiance. But after his party won a plurality of seats in the governing assembly last fall, he authorized indirect talks with Sinn Fein under the auspices of the British and Irish governments. The assembly was suspended following allegations that the IRA had violated the Good Friday accord, reached in April 1998, by continuing paramilitary activities.

British and Irish officials, who have said recent talks were encouraging, clearly hoped that Bush's intervention would help lead to a breakthrough. But expected agreements in the past have fizzled at the last minute, leaving both sides angry and embarrassed.

Paisley said he invoked the war against terrorism in his conversation with Bush as a reason for his skepticism. "I reminded the president of the fact that he would not have terrorists in his government, and that we must be satisfied that IRA terrorism is over and cannot return," Paisley told reporters.

But Adams said the Catholic community, which includes nationalists as well as republicans still hoping to unify the province with the Irish Republic someday, also had to overcome much skepticism. For 40 years, he said, Paisley "has built a career out of saying no. So it's a huge journey for him. And one of the problems we're going to have . . . is the fact that people don't believe that Ian Paisley would do a deal that Catholics, never mind nationalists or republicans, could feel comfortable with."

Staff writer Mike Allen in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.

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