YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

N. Ireland Talks Yield Progress

Both sides are optimistic after Blair and Ahern draw up a proposal for a new joint government.

October 14, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — After three days of intense negotiations while locked in at a Scottish golf resort, the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland failed to bring Northern Ireland's feuding parties to immediate agreement on power sharing, but worked out a proposal that could establish a new joint government by March.

The talks diplomatically ignored a Nov. 24 deadline for settling the long-standing conflict, but held out the possibility of a resolution during another five months of consultations, concessions and tentative steps toward a shared future.

"Today we stand at a crossroads," the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said Friday after the talks, which he said made "considerable progress."

"We stand at a place where there is a road to democracy and there is a road to anarchy, and I trust that we will see in the coming days the vast majority of people taking to the road of democracy," the Protestant leader said. "The days of the gunmen in government are hopefully over forever."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he was committed to "put all these divisions behind us and to resolve all of these differences."

"Common sense, political realism and the interests of all sections of our people demand that we achieve this," the republican leader said.

Years of violent conflict between Protestant British loyalists and Roman Catholic republicans hoping for a united Ireland have been followed by more years of missed deadlines and failed agreements toward achieving a lasting peace. The result was that the British government turned up the heat on the process and imposed the November deadline for the parties to either reach agreement on restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly and a shared executive, as the administration is called, or face dissolution of the Assembly and return to direct rule by London.

Both sides have been generally willing to work out an agreement, but ran aground once again this week on two issues: Sinn Fein's reluctance to recognize a police force that has often been used as an instrument of repression; and the refusal of DUP leaders to sit in a government with Sinn Fein until assured it had abandoned its militant, Irish Republican Army-linked past and, especially, was willing to accept the police.

The proposed agreement and timetable set out by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, recognizes that the remaining hurdles are as much choreography as substance -- if Sinn Fein accepts the police, the DUP will probably accept Sinn Fein, but who blinks first? -- and establishes a series of confidence-building measures.

The proposal demands agreement on police and power sharing. But it also gives the parties time to consult with their bases and seek voter approval of significant policy moves.

Each party has until Nov. 10 to respond. If they agree in principle, the Northern Ireland Assembly will nominate a leader, presumably from the DUP, and a deputy leader, from Sinn Fein, on Nov. 24. But significantly, the executive does not take power until elections are held in March.

If all goes smoothly, party leaders would nominate members of the full governing executive March 14, and London would hand over governing authority March 26.

The British prime minister, who has worked to make resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict a hallmark of his administration, flew to the Scottish city of St. Andrews and blocked out a full 48 hours from his schedule to sit with Ahern and try to push the parties to agreement. He said the proposed deal provided "a sound basis" that required compromises from both sides.

"We want a new dispensation in Northern Ireland where there is a shared future and where people can resolve their differences in a democratic way," Blair said. "And so it's a simple deal in the end. It's about, on the one hand, equality, respect for people who hold different views ... and exclusively peaceful means being used in order to decide differences."

Ahern said the proposed agreement provided "all of the elements" needed for a final resolution. "If not perfect by anybody's agenda, it is a fair and sustainable balance to try to, by March, make sure we have a working executive based on power sharing and acceptance of policing and the rule of law."

Los Angeles Times Articles