With no agreement in sight after five exhausting days of negotiation on the stalemated Northern Ireland peace process, the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland issued a take-it-or-leave-it plan that would set up a new, inclusive local government in the province before the Irish Republican Army gives up any of its guns.
Britain's Tony Blair and Ireland's Bertie Ahern ended the faltering talks in dramatic fashion tonight by proposing a schedule -- to start in just two weeks -- that sets up the government first, with disarmament to begin later. Sinn Fein and other nationalist parties hailed the plan, but the leading unionist called it "fundamentally unfair."
Blair called his settlement a "proposal," but then said it is "the only way forward." He urged political leaders here to go out and sell it to their people.
That will presumably be an easy sell for most residents of this British province, because strong majorities support last year's Good Friday agreement, the ambitious plan designed to end 30 years of sectarian warfare.
But the proposal poses a dilemma for David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. He has insisted for a year that there can be no government without prior surrender of IRA guns. Now Trimble will either have to swallow the pill Blair has prescribed or see his unionist side take the blame for the collapse of the peace process.
"Blair has put Trimble behind the eight ball," concluded Eamon Mallie, a historian and political analyst.
But there was also a sense here that a compromise deal imposed by London may be just what Trimble and other politicians were hoping for.
"The dynamic in Northern Ireland is that our so-called `leaders' are afraid to act on their own," said Monica McWilliams, a centrist member of the new local assembly. "Nobody does business here unless a prime minister or the president of the U.S. makes them. So Tony Blair issues a plan, and the parties all complain about it for the benefit of their constituencies, but it's really what they wanted to do anyway."
As is often the case in Northern Ireland, the "what if" part of the new plan was left vague. If Trimble's unionists reject the schedule, Blair has the legal power to proceed with it anyway -- but British officials refused to say whether he would do so.
The Blair-Ahern proposal, a two-page document titled "The Way Ahead," is designed to get around the twin problems -- guns and local government -- that have held up implementation of the Good Friday agreement for the past year.
The plan calls for Blair to make a legal declaration on July 15 that will pass local governing authority to the new Northern Ireland cabinet created by the Good Friday plan. On July 16, Blair will put forward legislation in the British Parliament to transfer local legislative authority to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
Those are crucial goals of the primarily Catholic nationalists, because they will get six of the 12 cabinet seats -- including two for the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party -- and have a role in province-wide government here for the first time.
To make this change palatable to the primarily Protestant unionists, the plan calls for the process of voluntary disarmament by the IRA and other sectarian paramilitaries to begin "within weeks" of the transfer of governing power. Up to now, Trimble and the unionists have refused to set up the government until after disarmament had begun.
In simplest terms, then, Blair chose to establish the government first, with disarmament to follow. That is the schedule established by the Good Friday agreement, and the one favored by the nationalists. But it is the opposite of what the unionists have sought.
Trimble, a stern and precise law professor who occasionally flashes a wry wit, said just this morning that he would not accept "mere promises" of disarmament by the IRA, no matter how strongly worded. "Fine words butter no parsnips," Trimble said.
But under the Blair proposal, Trimble will have to let the government take power before the process known as "decommissioning" -- that is, voluntary disarmament -- begins. At a news conference here, Trimble said "these proposals are in a sense fundamentally unfair in that they equate democrats with terrorists."
In contrast, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams beamed a broad smile when the plan was announced. "I think we have succeeded," Adams said. Other Sinn Fein members expressed confidence that the party as a whole will support the Blair plan. The largest predominantly Catholic party, the centrist Social Democratic and Labor Party, will also support the Blair plan.
Blair presented his "Way Ahead" as a "proposal," but he quickly added that there will be no alternative offered.
"This is the only way forward for Northern Ireland," Blair said. "It is the most historic opportunity for peace this land has known for years and years and years."
In Washington, President Clinton, who has been in telephone contact with parties here, urged that the province's parties not "let this thing come apart now."
The island of Eire is divided into the independent Republic of Ireland in the south, with 3.6 million residents, and the British province of Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.6 million, in the northeast corner. Northern Ireland is badly split between "unionists" -- those who want to retain the political union with Great Britain -- and "nationalists" -- those who want closer ties or actual unification with the Republic.
Most unionists are Protestants, most nationalists Roman Catholic. The chief dispute here is political, not religious, but ancient sectarian enmities have heightened the intensity of the conflict. In a flash of anger this morning, Adams stated a view held by many Catholics here: "This dispute is about the Ulster Unionist Party not being prepared to have Catholics . . . in government to share power."
For 30 years, beginning in 1968, the two sides carried on an armed battle that left some 3,600 people dead. Even now, with most of the paramilitaries honoring cease-fire agreements, schools, cemeteries, government buildings and even whole neighborhoods are surrounded by concrete and barbed-wire fences for security reasons.
If the Blair "proposal" isn't accepted, the Good Friday agreement would presumably be "parked," and the province would continue to be governed by British bureaucrats in London. That would be a political disaster for all parties. Blair is gambling that Trimble and the unionists will not be willing to accept the blame for such an unpopular outcome.
Participants in the talks today said Trimble was so exercised at one point that he brushed away a call from Clinton, saying he was too busy. White House officials said the two men had talked late today.
Struggle for Peace
Here are the main points of the British-Irish plan to get the Northern Ireland peace process moving again. The process had stalled over disarmament of Catholic and Protestant militias, in particular the Irish Republican Army, and the role of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party in a new executive.
The British Protestants and the Irish Catholic minority of Northern Ireland reaffirm the principles of last year's Good Friday peace agreement, which include:
Setting up a body to execute the powers that will be transferred from Britain.
Disarmament of Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups carried out according to procedures laid down by the International Commission on Decommissioning.
July 15: Executive ministers to be nominated according to the party vote in last year's election for the Northern Ireland legislature, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
July 16 -- 18: British Parliament to pass legislation that will transfer power to the new Northern Ireland executive, effective July 18.
The disarmament commission will specify that disarmament has actually started, and it will report progress in September, December and May 2000, when it should be completed.
If conditions on the transfer of power or disarmament are not met, the operation will be suspended immediately.