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Protestant Party Rejects Proposal for N. Ireland

April 08, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Hours after getting a blueprint for peace and prosperity in this violence-weary province of Britain, Northern Ireland's biggest Protestant party flatly rejected it Tuesday, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair rushed here to try to salvage a settlement.

The stumbling block in the plan brokered by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell was how much say the Irish Republic to the south should have in the governing of the mostly Protestant north.

"I feel the hand of history resting on our shoulders, and I think we need to acknowledge that and respond to it," the British leader said after arriving Tuesday afternoon. Bertie Ahern, Ireland's prime minister, was also expected here after the burial today of his mother, who died Monday at age 87.

As the peace talks in Northern Ireland went down to the wire, President Clinton in Washington said Americans, more than 40 million of whom trace their ancestral roots to Ireland, were "watching and waiting."

For 22 months, in talks sponsored by Britain and Ireland, Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, has been struggling to broker compromises that could bring three decades of communal strife between Protestants and Roman Catholics in this British province to a close. The Maine Democrat has set midnight Thursday as the deadline for a settlement.

Shortly after midnight Monday, the eight parties participating in the negotiations at Stormont Castle outside Belfast received his draft of 65 pages suggesting how Northern Ireland should be governed.

"This is the most pivotal point in Northern Ireland's history," said Gary McMichael, representative of the province's biggest pro-British paramilitary group, the outlawed Ulster Defense Assn.

Mitchell, who has often spoken of the acute Irish sense of history and enduring memory of wrongs done centuries ago, is seeking to heal a sectarian breach formalized in the 1920s. Then, as the predominantly Catholic south of Ireland won its independence from London, the Protestant majority in the north founded the province now known as Northern Ireland as an entity fiercely loyal to the British crown.

Thirty years of communal "troubles," as they are euphemistically known, have claimed more than 3,200 lives in Northern Ireland, and the bloodshed between Protestants (also known as "unionists" and "loyalists") and Catholics ("republicans" and "nationalists") has fostered protection rackets, vigilante justice and distrust between the communities.

The violence and resulting insecurity have also stalled the growth and modernization of a local economy that, at the beginning of the 20th century, was so advanced that it was Belfast shipyards that were given the honor of constructing the luxury liner Titanic. Northern Ireland these days has a joblessness rate of 7.7%, 2.8 percentage points higher than the British average.

The contemporary British and Irish governments want the Protestants and Catholics who make up the province's 1.6 million inhabitants to join in a new Northern Ireland parliament that would have enhanced powers of self-government and to cooperate with authorities in the Irish Republic for the first time in a cross-border council of ministers.

It was the Mitchell plan's formula for cooperation between the north and south that the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest party of all in the province, announced it could not accept for fear it would stoke Catholic aspirations for a single Irish state. "I wouldn't touch it with a 40-foot barge pole," said John Taylor, the Ulster Unionists' deputy leader.

One Ulster Unionist official accused Ahern, the Irish prime minister, of having endorsed wholesale a "Sinn Fein wish list," referring to the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which seeks to end British rule in the north and unite it with the Irish Republic. An Irish government source denied the allegation.

Sinn Fein and a moderate nationalist group, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, want the "ministerial council" to have an executive role. The unionists fear that allowing Ireland a voice or a vote in governing the north--even in matters of tourism, agriculture and trade--would weaken institutional ties with the rest of Britain and serve as a prelude to Irish unification.

A Blair spokesman, responding to the Ulster Unionists' announcement, said Mitchell's draft was meant to serve as a basis for "discussion and negotiation" and not as a final document. On Tuesday evening, the British prime minister met with Mitchell and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists' leader, evidently to reassure the Protestant community that it was not going to be abandoned by the British government.

"Maybe it is impossible for us to find a way through, maybe with the best will in the world we can't do it," Blair said after arriving in Belfast. "But it is right to try, and I'm here to try."

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