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In N. Ireland, Peace Plan Hangs by Thread

Talks: Negotiators work around the clock without much progress. Disarming IRA remains sticking point.


BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Political leaders worked furiously today to rescue the Northern Ireland peace agreement, trying to pull it back from the brink of failure just as the landmark accord reaches its first anniversary.

Negotiators from major factions and the British and Irish prime ministers held round-the-clock talks without notable progress on the dispute that threatens to sink the deal: when and how to disarm the Irish Republican Army.

The confrontation comes at a particularly dangerous time, with sectarian violence on the rise and last year's spirit of goodwill ebbing.

"A lot of people who've invested a lot in this agreement are now concerned that we are in meltdown," said Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen's University in Belfast, the provincial capital.

Unless the dispute is resolved in the next few days, observers say the peace process risks losing so much credibility that it may not recover, prompting a new cycle of violence that could escalate and cause the peace talks to collapse. Time and trust are running out fast.

It is a sign of the seriousness of the situation that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spent much of the last two days in Northern Ireland, even while war rages in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia. He dashed to Parliament in London for a few hours Wednesday before returning to Belfast for talks that stretched into early this morning.

Friday is the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement--which promised to end decades of violence in this British province--as well as the deadline for a new joint Protestant-Catholic Cabinet to be named. Pro-British unionists insist that no member of the IRA's political arm, Sinn Fein, can be included in the Cabinet unless the IRA starts disarming.

A failure to meet the deadline--which has already been pushed back once--would underscore just how deeply the poisonous politics of Northern Ireland have corroded the agreement.

It could also heighten tensions just as two other important dates arrive: Sunday is the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising, which hard-line nationalists celebrate because it led to independence for the Irish Republic to the south. Monday is the official start of the "marching season," when Protestant groups stage parades that tend to touch off clashes when they pass through Roman Catholic neighborhoods.

Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern put the best spin on the situation, saying the two sides were drawing closer. But most of the other participants were less sanguine.

"It's anybody's guess whether we can deliver any good news on Good Friday," said Monica McWilliams of the Women's Coalition, a nonsectarian party that supports the agreement.

The accord was endorsed by a referendum last summer, earning approval from 71% of residents and a majority of the unionist community. But polls indicate support has since eroded.

The man at the hub of the current impasse is David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in reaching the agreement a year ago.

Now, having been elected head of the province's soon-to-be-installed government, Trimble says that, even though Sinn Fein is entitled to two spots in the Cabinet, he will not let it join unless the IRA begins handing over weapons. He is being squeezed by his own party, which is split down the middle between those who favor the agreement and opponents who cite the IRA's lack of disarmament as a sign that the peace process will not work.

"We have carried this process as far as we can," Trimble said. "We are hampered at this stage, because there is not even as yet any sign that the republican movement will commit itself to implementing its share of the agreement."

Sinn Fein says Trimble's demand goes beyond the terms of the agreement, which set May 2000 as a deadline for full disarmament but did not say when it must begin.

In its annual Easter message, released Wednesday, the IRA said it "wants to see a permanent peace in this country," and stressed that "IRA guns are silent." The organization has observed a cease-fire since July 1997.

The statement made no mention of disarmament. Pro-British unionists read the omission as an indication that the IRA has no intention of giving up guerrilla tactics as a means to seek its goal of reuniting the two parts of the island.

But Sinn Fein negotiator Mitchel McLaughlin said the unionists misunderstood the statement. Because every previous IRA Easter message contained a pledge never to relinquish arms, the omission should be seen as a conciliatory gesture, he said.

"The authors of that statement were trying to give space to the political leaders meeting here in this building," he said outside Hillsborough Castle, residence of Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary.

He accused Trimble and the unionists of moving the goal posts by making disarmament a prerequisite for Cabinet seats.

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