N. Ireland Peace Plan Rejected
By T.R. Reid
The executive board of the Ulster Unionist Party met for just 15 minutes before deciding that the newest proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not go far enough to induce the party to form a government with its longtime adversaries in the Irish nationalist camp.
The decision by the party leadership -- including 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble -- means that the unionist side in the struggle over the status of Northern Ireland will take most of the blame for this latest setback in the on-again, off-again effort to create political institutions that could bridge the differences that have sparked 30 years of sectarian warfare there.
The continuing impasse also could jeopardize the tenuous cease-fire entered into by Northern Ireland's rival Protestant and Roman Catholic militia groups, a truce that has largely held over the past year despite the wrangling of political leaders.
In a province-wide referendum last year and in recent polls, large majorities of Northern Ireland's 1.6 million residents have expressed support for the peace process, but activist members of the Ulster Unionists have always been wary of forming a government with the primarily Catholic nationalist parties.
Blair expressed "frustration and disappointment" at the Ulster Unionists' announcement, but British officials said they would wait no more than a couple of months before mounting another effort to reinvigorate the peace process.
The newly created Northern Ireland Assembly is still scheduled to meet on Thursday -- a session that was intended to mark the formal opening of a cross-community government, as envisioned by the ambitious peace plan that emerged from the historic multi-party agreement on Good Friday 1998.
Trimble did not say how his party will proceed when the assembly meets, but tonight's brief announcement suggests the predominantly Protestant unionist parties -- those that support continued political union with Britain -- will refuse to take its place in the new provincial executive body. That 12-member group was to have assumed local government authority on Thursday.
Although the major Irish nationalist parties -- those that want to see the six counties of Northern Ireland form a single nation with the Republic of Ireland to the south -- are willing to take their seats in the executive body, a unionist boycott means the body cannot function. The peace plan mandates that no government can be seated in the province unless both communities -- Protestant and Catholic -- take part.
The political dispute in Northern Ireland goes back decades, and hard feelings on both sides of the political divide are exacerbated by religious differences. Paramilitary groups on both sides have waged open warfare and terrorist campaigns since 1969, leaving some 3,500 dead.
It was the effort to disarm the various paramilitary organizations that led to the collapse of the latest peace effort, which was launched by Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on July 2, after five days of negotiations with Northern Ireland's political parties failed to reach agreement on a way to move the peace process forward.
The Blair-Ahern plan, "The Way Forward," called for formal establishment of the local government this week, with the first steps toward disarmament by militia groups on both sides to begin shortly afterward -- the basic schedule set forth in the original peace agreement.
That plan was endorsed by Sinn Fein -- the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, the most formidable nationalist militia group -- and by other nationalist parties. But Trimble and the Ulster Unionists rejected the idea, insisting that the IRA must start giving up its weapons before the new government is installed. The unionist slogan, which Trimble invoked again tonight, has been "No guns, no government."
Sinn Fein and the IRA -- acutely sensitive to what they see as unequal treatment -- have resisted the unionists' demands for disarmament prior to formation of the government. Their position has been that they will adhere to the Good Friday schedule -- and nothing more.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company