The Northern Ireland peace process remained in a state of suspension today as Britain, Ireland and a senior envoy from the Bush administration struggled to coax a definitive commitment from the Irish Republican Army to permanently end violence.
An official with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said that an IRA statement issued Sunday represented progress, but that Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern were still seeking "necessary clarity" before they could accept it.
The two leaders have been waiting for five days to journey to Belfast to announce their blueprint for breaking the province's deadlocked political process. But they have refused to do so until they get a firm commitment on disarmament from the IRA, the predominately Catholic underground paramilitary organization that waged a 30-year campaign to free the province from British rule.
Without that commitment, Blair and Ahern fear they will not be able to induce the main moderate Protestant political leader, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, to embrace the blueprint and shepherd it through a special party conference later this month.
The IRA has delivered two confidential statements on disarmament -- referred to by the British as "acts of completion" -- in the past week. Each statement has been rejected by Blair and Ahern and sent back for further clarification.
"The two governments believe there has been progress and that the statement shows a clear desire to make the peace process work," Paul Murphy, the British government's secretary for Northern Ireland, told Parliament, referring to Sunday's IRA declaration. But, he added that "it would not be right to publish [their] proposals, and they can have no status until the necessary clarity on all sides about acts of completion is in place."
Blair and Ahern were due originally to publish their plan last Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement that brought a formal end to sectarian violence and initiated a local power-sharing arrangement between the province's Protestant majority and Catholic minority. They are attempting to reach an agreement at least one month before local elections, which are scheduled for May 29.
Both sides fear that without an agreement, Trimble's Ulster Unionists could be badly defeated at the polls by the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party under the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Local political leaders have been meeting daily with each other and with Richard Haass, a special U.S. envoy. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, have taken part.
Blair, in his meeting with President Bush in Northern Ireland last week, trumpeted the peace process there as an example for the rest of the world. But the effort has been in trouble almost since it began five years ago. Britain suspended the power-sharing administration last October as allegations surfaced that the IRA had operated an intelligence-gathering ring within the provincial government.
Sinn Fein officials say the latest IRA statement focuses on the organization's intentions and its willingness to reengage with an independent international commission overseeing its disarmament. The IRA has been observing a self-declared cease-fire since July 1997 but has never committed to permanent disarmament and renunciation of armed struggle.
These officials have said the IRA is prepared to declare its peaceful intent and take unprecedented steps toward disarmament, but they have stopped short of offering a complete and unreserved commitment. They have expressed fears that Protestant leaders could suspend the peace process after the IRA disbands, leaving Catholics effectively disenfranchised.
In effect, the two sides are at a stalemate, with Catholics saying the IRA should not agree to permanent disarmament until Protestants commit permanently to sharing power, while Protestants contend they cannot commit politically until the IRA abandons its weapons for good.
After sending its latest statement to London and Dublin, the IRA issued a brief communique saying it had set out "our views on recent developments in the peace process. We did so because of our commitment to this process and our desire to see it succeed."
This has not been good enough for unionist leaders, who contend the IRA is leaving wiggle room to return to violence. "Doesn't it tell us something about their real intentions -- the very fact that they are so reluctant to commit?" asked Jeffrey Donaldson, an Ulster Unionist member of Parliament.