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No Breakthrough on N. Ireland

Talks fail to revive a power-sharing agreement, but Blair remains optimistic.

September 19, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair's high- profile bid to resuscitate a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics fell short Saturday after three days of talks, but the parties reported progress and Blair expressed hope for an agreement later this year.

The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein apparently offered its strongest pledges yet that the outlawed Irish Republican Army would decommission weapons and dismantle paramilitary structures. But the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party held out for changes in the governing mechanisms that had been in place until two years ago.

The breakthrough Good Friday agreement of 1998 established a power-sharing arrangement for Northern Ireland, including a regional assembly. The arrangement collapsed two years ago over unionist charges that the IRA was continuing paramilitary activity and had mounted an intelligence operation inside the government.

Blair expressed disappointment after the talks. He noted, however, that the British and Irish governments had proposed an "acceptable compromise," and said he hoped that the parties would accept it in lower-level discussions expected to begin Tuesday in Northern Ireland.

"We believe what is now on offer is reasonable in its substance and historic in its meaning," Blair said. "We are determined to move ahead."

He said that there must be a "complete end to violence in all its forms" at the same time that "there must be a genuine, lasting and stable commitment to power-sharing."

Although most of the onus for the failure of the talks seemed to be on the DUP for refusing to agree to the power-sharing mechanisms in the Good Friday accord, Paisley said the party had adhered to its pledges to its Protestant constituents.

"We have achieved progress in some matters," he said. "What is important for us today is that we have come out of these talks able to look all of the people in the eye."

Paisley said he was skeptical of the promises that the IRA would decommission its weapons once and for all. His party is demanding that the IRA cease to exist, and is leery thus far of the group's promises to disarm.

"The prime minister tells us that he believes we shall see very shortly this begin to happen," said the ailing 78-year-old. "I am too long in the tooth.... I am too old to be bluffed -- and we're not going to be bluffed. We say we will believe it when we see it."

The DUP was not a party to the peace accord and has always argued that the pact's mechanisms for a shared executive and shared assembly were inadequate. The party wants to make ministers in the home-rule government accountable to the unionist-dominated assembly.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the leading party among Northern Ireland's minority Roman Catholics and considered the political arm of the IRA, accused the DUP of failing to negotiate. "They have not moved," he said, questioning the DUP's willingness to "accept equality."

"This has not been about the IRA. The fact is, this has not been about the issues of arms," he said. "The problem is essentially about elements of political unionism and their ... reticence in embracing a process of change."

The all-party talks called by Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern included Sinn Fein and the DUP, but the two sides did not talk to each other directly during the discussions that started Thursday at Leeds Castle, a 1,000-year-old Norman keep in southeastern England.

Ahern said he saw a "real prospect" for an agreement; Blair said that efforts would be intensified.

"If agreement cannot be reached when it is clear that it should be reached, we will find another way to move this process forward," Blair said.

An uneasy calm has settled over Northern Ireland in recent years despite the lack of a power-sharing arrangement. Officials, however, fear that unless the parties agree to a permanent peace, violence could erupt again in the province of 1.7 million people.

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