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Global Focus: TALK ABOUT THE UNITED KINGDOM



T.R. Reid
Times are changing for the United Kingdom and its four constituent countries in the British Isles: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England, the heart of the U.K.'s government, allowed Scotland and Wales to form a local parliament in May. Meanwhile, Britain and Ireland are attempting save the Northern Ireland peace process that would establish a new provincial government in the British province. Does decentralization mark the first step toward full independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom?

Washington Post foreign correspondent T.R. Reid joined us from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, July 2, to discuss the latest developments in the Northern Ireland peace process and the changing political climate of the United Kingdom.

Read the transcript below.

Washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us T.R. Can you give us the latest developments on the Northern Ireland peace talks and the obstacles keeping the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein from reaching an agreement?

T.R. Reid: I'm at the Stormont Castle complex in East Belfast, on a grey and blustery summer's day--which is to say, an ordinary summer day in Belfast. Nearby sits a phalanx of Northern Ireland politicians of every stripe, in a meeting with the Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, and Teaoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern. They've been meeting for five straight days now to try to end the stalemate blocking progress on the Good Friday peace agreement.
The politicians here signed an ambitious and indeed historic plan on Good Friday of 1998 designed to end decades of lethal fighting and form a multi-party local government. Sadly, the pols have spent the past 14 months mainly arguing about the deal they signed on Good Friday.
Blair set an "absolute deadline" of midnight Wednesday for an agreement to end the stalemate. That passed two days ago, but hey--deadlines are pretty plastic in Northern Ireland.


Johannesburg, S. Africa: Viewed from the Land of Reconciliation, the parties in Northern Ireland genuinely don't seem to -want- to make peace. But I've been in N. Ireland - the people do. Why such a gulf between the people and their leaders? Is the gulf real?

T.R. Reid: You've hit on the central question. In Friday's Post I wrote about the disconnect between the politicians and the people. About 75 percent of the voters want this deal to work, but the pols seem to pay more attention to the noisy 25 percent on the fringes.
This phenomenon is not limited to N. Ireland. I don't know about S. African politics, but in the U.S. we frequently have the situation that politicians pay more attention to their noisy party activists than to the mainstream. That is one reason the Republicans haven't been able to nominate a presidential candidate the American people would accept for the past two elections.
I find it frustrating to watch and report on. Must be more frustrating for the voters here.


Washington, DC: You continually use the phrase, "Sinn Fein, the -legal- political arm of the -outlawed-IRA" in your post. Outside of it being trite -every Anglophile likes to use it-, it just isn't true. Whereas the IRA and Sinn Fein share the same constituency, they are not the same organization. Sinn Fein represents 17% of the people of Northern Ireland. The IRA does not have that many troops. Do you feel that the perceptions that you journalist give to the court of world opinion by repeatedly fanning this flame is not largely responsible for the failure of the Good Friday Agreement en re the decommissioning issue?

T.R. Reid: Thanks for this question. That dubious phrase was inserted into my copy by an editor the other day. Normally, I don't say this kind of thing, because I should be responsible for the stuff that goes out under my name. I griped like mad to the editor about this, and now I can tell her that readers are also complaining.
thank you.


Gaithersburg, MD: Do "regular" people living in London and elsewhere in England really care about Northern Ireland? If not, shouldn't the government just leave? It isn't their country after all.

T.R. Reid: I think most people in England would be perfectly satisfied if N. ireland floated off to sea--or if it were to merge with the Republic to the South. The people who really care about the sacred "union" are the Unionists in N. ireland. They are loyal Britons, and they are also afraid that they will become the powerless minority if their province becomes part of a united Ireland.
I think most people in England see N. Ireland as a drain of money, as a dangerous post for their children in the army, and as a distraction for their politicians.


Rosslyn, Va.: Since the negotiators have already passed the "absolute deadline" how long do you think they might continue?

T.R. Reid: Exactly my question! The basic dynamic here is, every hour we are told of a step forward toward agreement. This is usually followed a half-hour later by a step backward. But Blair and Ahern are hard-working people, and as long as they think there's a chance of some forward movement they will keep talking.
So the talks will probably go to midnight tonight, at least (it is 5:30 pm here now), and maybe on into tomorrow.


Washingtonpost.com: We're roughly half-way through this live discussion with T.R. Reid. Please continue submitting your questions.


Anderson, IN: Given the continuing difficulties of the peace efforts in Northern Ireland, and given the public attitudes against a return to the violence of the past, where is the IRA and the leadership of Sinn Fein likely to take their followers? Do they hold any real alternatives short of accepting the peace agreement?

T.R. Reid: Sinn Fein has no alternative but to accept the peace agreement. But they say-- with some justification -- that the Unionists are failing to abide by the agreement. I tend to agree with this. the unionists basically added a new term to the agreement by demanding prior disarmament. the question is how long the british gov't will let the unionists to continue to hold things up.


Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Although the establishment of welsh and scottish parliaments is politically symbolic are they politically meaningful? Do they have the power to make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people?

T.R. Reid: The Scottish parliament could be significant. For one thing, it has considerable power of local matters. For another, about a third of its newly-elected members are Scottish nationalists who want to leave the U.K. If the nationalists perform well in this session, and increase their numbers in the next election (2003), there could be a serious drive for Scottish independence.
In Wales, there is much less of a nationalist bent, and the new assembly is basically a subdivision of the British parliament. So it is more symbolic.


Bethesda, Md.: T.R.: How are recent developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland affecting Aussies and their own thoughts of becoming a republic?

T.R. Reid: You should have seen the newspapers here when those uppity Australians dared to announce that they will have their own elected P.M. open the Sydney Olympics, rather than the British Queen. This was taken in London as an "insult" to the crown. The aussies laughed at this response.
I think the Aussies are pretty independent already and perfectly able to laugh at the lingering imperialistic tendencies of London.


washington, d.c.: It certainly seems that England 's power over its commonwealth is eroding. How has this change affected British psyche?

T.R. Reid: I feel imperialism was a blight on world history and I think the colonial powers -- including, to a small degree, our country --should be ashamed of what they did.
Here in the UK, though, most people are proud of their imperialistic past. You walk down Whitehall or the Mall (rhymes with "pal") and they have all these statues of great colonialists. Cecil Rhodes. Kitchener. The guy who conquered Burma. The guy who conquered Pakistan.
So I think the loss of Empire was traumatic and they're not over it yet.


Arlington, VA: Is it true that the Irish economy is now robust and the nation's impoverished image is forever relegated to the dust bin of history?

T.R. Reid: Well, forever is a long time. but the republic of ireland is not a poor country today. in fact it has the highest growth rate in europe. the government and the private sector are making huge investments.

Most important, the people are confident and proud of what they've achieved, so i don't think "poor Ireland" is a valid stereotype any more.


Arlington, Va.: With the summer marching season coming up, is the peace in Northern Ireland facing an even larger crisis?

T.R. Reid: I hope not. last year was a bad year. there were more murders and bombing attacks in 98 than any time in the previous 4 years. this year has also started down a fairly grisly path. but the police and the army seem much more prepared for this year's marching season. that muddy cow pasture at Dumcree has been turned into an army encampment to prevent the trouble they had last year. so, maybe the strong security presence will make a difference. i hope so.


Washington, DC: What does T.R. stand for? What do you have to hide?

T.R. Reid: My name is Thomas Roy Reid III. Long ago, when i was young and needed money for a growing family, I was freelancing for raunchy magazines. And i used my name Thomas Roy Ried III. My father Thomas Roy Reid II called me up and raised hell. So, i said okay. no more dirty magazines.

next i sold a story to t.v. guide, a perfectly legitimate family magazine. as fate would have it, they took a single line from the middle of a perfectly innocent article and used it as the rationale for a racy illustration. so, here was the largest circulation weekly magazine in america with this picture of this big-busted woman and my name Thomas Roy Reid III. then my dad really exploded and i changed my byline.


Washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for now. Thanks to all our users and thanks to Thomas Roy Reid III.


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