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N. Ireland Assembly Focus of New Talks

Britain and Ireland seek to help revive the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing process.

September 17, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — In a bid to restore power-sharing between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland two years after the process collapsed, Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland opened a round of talks Thursday in southern England.

The discussions at Leeds Castle in Kent are aimed at ending the deadlock that has frozen the peace process in Northern Ireland since the breakdown of the British territory's joint assembly in October 2002.

The talks bring together political leaders, including Gerry Adams, a Catholic, of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party and Protestant preacher Ian Paisley of the pro-British Democratic Unionists.

Blair and Ahern have worked for months to orchestrate the talks, considered the most important since the discussions that led to the last Northern Ireland breakthrough, the Good Friday agreement, in 1998. The current discussions were expected to last at least until Saturday, with Blair and Ahern acting as mediators.

Unionist negotiators are demanding a commitment from Sinn Fein that the Irish Republican Army will disarm, decommission its weapons and renounce violence, moving its struggle to unite Northern Ireland with Ireland to the political sphere. Sinn Fein is considered the political wing of the IRA.

"They know what has to be done. The question is, do they have the will to do it?" said David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, considered more moderate than Paisley's group.

Trimble, who is also participating in the talks, said that continuing paramilitary activity, "particularly by the IRA," had doomed the Northern Ireland assembly two years ago, and only an end to all such activity would allow power-sharing to resume.

It would be the first time that Sinn Fein and Paisley's DUP -- parties representing the more extreme views of their respective constituencies -- have sat down together for peace negotiations.

Before the talks, Adams was hinting broadly that Sinn Fein would go the extra mile to accommodate its critics.

"A deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP is inevitable," Adams said. "Will it happen this weekend? We are here to make it happen this weekend."

Blair and Ahern framed the talks as a crucial attempt for the parties to find their way back from the abyss.

"This is the moment of decision," Blair said. "We need sustainable and durable institutions of governing in Northern Ireland. We have therefore to be very sure about an end to paramilitarism of whatever kind."

He urged the Catholic and Protestant leaders to give the people of Northern Ireland "a peace that isn't haphazard and random, that isn't partial and is complete and lasting."

Northern Ireland's assembly was suspended in 2002 amid charges that the IRA had mounted an intelligence operation inside the government. Since then, the province has reverted to direct British rule.

Experts said the key this time would be whether any IRA pledge to turn over its weapons would have sufficient credibility to persuade Paisley's Unionists to sit in a government with Sinn Fein, their longtime enemy. Trimble's party governed with Sinn Fein before, but Paisley's party outpolled Trimble's group in voting last year and is now the largest Protestant party in the Northern Ireland assembly.

Sinn Fein is hoping to win concessions from Britain, including withdrawal of troops from the province, amnesty for former terrorists and police reforms.

Ahern, the Irish prime minister, said only a few obstacles remained to restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland. "The people are frustrated with all of us," he said. "They want to see us bring this thing to an end."

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