President Bush will visit Northern Ireland on Monday to review progress in the Iraq conflict with his wartime ally Tony Blair and to help give a final push to restoring the peace process in the British province, officials said today.
Prime Minister Blair's office said the two leaders would discuss the war and their plans for post-conflict Iraq at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, the province's capital. Blair has been pressing for a significant role for the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq, while Bush administration officials have insisted that the United States and Britain should have the dominant role. Bush has remained largely silent on the matter.
Bush and Blair will also meet with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and with the leaders of the three major political parties in Northern Ireland, who are reportedly close to agreement to resume the power-sharing arrangement between Protestants and Catholics.
Britain suspended the arrangement last October after police uncovered evidence that the Irish Republican Army was running a spy ring from inside the local administration. Local political parties have shared power in a joint government set up by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The spy scandal and suspension have put pressure on Sinn Fein, the Catholic political party affiliated with the IRA, to finally agree to the complete disarmament and disbandment of the guerrilla organization, which fought a long-running war against British rule in the province. In recent weeks, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has suggested in speeches and remarks that he and the republican movement were ready to move to disbandment, although he has offered few specifics.
Bush's willingness to devote time to the Northern Ireland issue during wartime caught many observers by surprise. Officials said Bush and Blair had agreed during their last session at Camp David to review the progress of the war during a meeting in Britain, which has dispatched 40,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region to fight alongside American forces.
The timing of the meeting -- their third face-to-face encounter in three weeks -- happened to coincide with the prospect of progress in the Northern Ireland negotiations, officials said, and Blair asked Bush if they could hold the talks at Hillsborough.
President Bill Clinton played a pivotal role in helping broker the Good Friday Agreement. While Bush has been less personally involved, administration officials have said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they have no patience with groups that commit political violence and they expect Sinn Fein and the IRA to permanently renounce armed struggle. Officials also made clear today that the Bush visit was in part a further expression of his gratitude to Blair for the prime minister's staunch support of the campaign against Iraq.
British, American and Irish officials all said they were not expecting a breakthrough during Bush's visit. "Tony Blair's been working hard on the Northern Ireland issue, and so has Dublin. They're not there yet, but it's a propitious moment for the president of the United States to show up and help move things along," said a U.S. official.
Blair and Ahern have been pressing the local political parties for a new agreement for months. Last month they met for 30 hours of talks at Hillsborough Castle but went home without reaching a final deal. Blair issued an ultimatum declaring that the time for negotiations had ended and that all sides needed to accept what was being offered.
According to the delicate choreography outlined by British and Irish officials, Blair and Ahern plan to put forward a new proposal next week. They are hoping that Adams will respond by declaring the IRA's commitment to disband, after which David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant party in the agreement, the Ulster Unionists, would call a meeting of his organization to endorse the plan. New local elections would be held May 29.
"We could be on the verge of real progress, if it all holds together," said one Irish official, who refused to be identified.
Officials said that Bush and Blair also plan to discuss the Middle East peace process. The British prime minister has pressed Bush to move ahead with plans to publish a "Roadmap for Peace" between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to an independent Palestinian state in three years' time.
Bush has publicly committed to unveiling the plan, but he faces strong pressure from the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters to either scrap or heavily amend the plan, which has been endorsed by Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Blair has argued that progress in the Middle East peace process is a prerequisite for restoring Arab trust in the United States and Britain following the war in Iraq.