N. Ireland Peace Talks Put On Hold
By Charles Trueheart
After three days of intensive negotiations before the Easter weekend deadline, the stymied process of salvaging the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was suspended until April 13.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the suspension "a pause for reflection" and declared that Protestant and Catholic negotiators already had a "basis for agreement" to move past the sensitive issue of arms decommissioning.
The dispute has become a fulcrum for lingering sectarian mistrust after 30 years of terror and bloodshed here, and it has threatened to scuttle the establishment of power-sharing between Northern Ireland's Protestant majority and Catholic minority.
The Irish Republican Army, the Catholic paramilitary group that has been fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland, has refused a Protestant demand that it begin surrendering its arsenal of weapons as a sign of its commitment to the Good Friday accords.
Although the April 11, 1998, agreement does not require decommissioning before May 22, 2000, the main Protestant faction, the Ulster Unionist Party, has made a token delivery of IRA "hardware" a condition for participating in Northern Ireland's new cabinet alongside representatives of Sinn Fein, the outlawed IRA's legal political wing.
The Ulster Unionist Party won the largest share of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and its leader, David Trimble, has been designated the first minister, the top official under the new home rule arrangement.
Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams expressed disappointment at the outcome of the talks and guarded optimism that a compromise could be found after the discussions resume. But both men face strong resistance to any appearance of a cave-in from their hard-line factions, as well as from some of the 30 percent of voters who rejected the Good Friday agreement in a referendum last May.
Blair sought to put a positive face on a negotiating setback that has divided his attention during a dramatic week of British participation in the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia. The pause, he said, was "just to get that last little bit of the way" to a resolution. "This is an issue many think was intractable . . . and we think we've found a way around it."
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who with Blair took charge of negotiations to solve this crisis, said the draft formula devised this week at Hillsborough Castle met three important criteria: "It is not complex, it can be understood, and it can be implemented."
But Trimble, in remarks to reporters, called it "a complex kind of choreography." The declaration's language is deliberately vague on key points -- laden with the kind of artful "fudge" for which the Good Friday agreement has been criticized and praised.
According to the declaration, a Northern Ireland cabinet would be nominated soon after a deal is reached, setting in motion the implementation of the year-old political accords. Within a month, during a "collective act of reconciliation" that would include homage to the 3,200 who have died in sectarian violence here, "some arms" would be "put beyond use, on a voluntary basis" by the IRA.
"Around that time," the declaration says, powers will devolve from Britain to the Northern Ireland Assembly's executive, or cabinet, as well as to various institutions within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland.
Certification that IRA arms and explosives had been destroyed would be made by an existing independent Northern Ireland decommissioning body led by retired Gen. John de Chastelain, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company