With yet another deadline looming in Northern Ireland's peace process, Prime Minister Tony Blair today introduced legislation designed to end the stalemate -- and he got a reasonably positive response.
Blair's plan calls for the transfer of local governing authority from London to the new Northern Ireland government by this weekend, the latest deadline he has set thus far. That's a key goal of Irish nationalists -- those who want to see Northern Ireland unite with the Republic of Ireland. The nationalists, primarily Roman Catholics, have been effectively locked out of local government in the past.
But the plan also sets up various mechanisms under which local government authority would be suspended if the Irish Republican Army, the main nationalist paramilitary organization, fails by this summer to begin voluntary disarmament -- for months, the main issue dividing the negotiators. That is a key goal of the unionists -- the primarily Protestant majority that wants Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain.
Following talks with Blair in London, David Trimble, the leader of the largest unionist party, said only that he would introduce amendments to the plan -- not a ringing endorsement, but given Northern Ireland's sharply divided politics, that was hardly expected. The good news for Blair was that Trimble did not reject the plan outright.
While the politicians were talking in London, Protestants were walking in Belfast, Ballymoney and other towns throughout Northern Ireland's six counties on the most important day of the region's annual "marching season." To the obvious relief of police and Northern Ireland's 1.6 million residents, all of today's marches were completed peacefully.
July 12 is celebrated every year by the Protestant Loyal Orange Order -- a brotherhood known as Orangemen -- with mass marches through towns and villages all over the province. It is the anniversary of the victory by English Protestant King William III, of the Dutch House of Orange, over an army supporting ousted Catholic King James II in 1690. On and around the 12th of July each year, the Orange lodges stage thousands of parades, and these events have often sparked violence when the marchers walk through Catholic neighborhoods.
This year, the government commission that regulates parading refused to allow the largest of these marches, in central Belfast, to pass by a Catholic neighborhood on Ormeau Road. The ruling angered the Orangemen, but they suppressed their ire and staged a large but orderly rally in a nearby park. "I'm enormously impressed with the discipline and decency we saw," provincial Police Chief Ronnie Flannagan told the BBC.
The general sense of relief resulting from an uneventful marching day may have had some effect here in London, where Blair's legislation was being shaped. The prime minister talked with Northern Ireland politicians of all stripes and with President Clinton, who has offered his influence to help resolve the issue.
Trimble emerged from No. 10 Downing Street -- the prime minister's residence -- in an uncharacteristically tranquil mood and said, "We will continue to consult with people." It was a far more positive response than the denunciations Trimble has been uttering almost daily since July 2, when Blair laid out his general outline for launching the new local government.
Trimble said he expects to propose some amendments to the legislation when it goes to the House of Commons Tuesday for expedited approval. Blair's strategy has always allowed for Trimble to make some changes, so the unionist leader can go back to his supporters and declare that he won the best deal he could.
Later in the week, as Blair's strategists envision events, members of Sinn Fein, the IRA-allied political party, and other nationalist groups will likely appear on the front steps of Downing Street. Much like Trimble, they too are expected to complain about the Blair plan -- but declare it acceptable.
If all that were to happen -- and such things are always iffy in the volatile political circumstances of Northern Ireland -- Blair would be in a position to authorize the new local government by this weekend.
CAPTION: A member of the Orange Order takes a break following the parade in Portadown. About 5,000 Orangemen marched to celebrate a Protestant victory over Catholics.