Britain, Ireland agree on compromise accord Power-sharing pact would maintain links with London, Dublin

January 13, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Desperate to inject life into the fraying Northern Ireland peace process, the British and Irish governments yesterday unveiled their joint blueprint of a deal to end the conflict that has cost more than 3,000 lives since 1969.

The power-sharing agreement amounts to an artful compromise, offering something to nearly everyone in a bid to defuse decades of religious and political struggle between majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.

The document envisions the two sides cooperating in a new Northern Ireland Assembly. New government bodies would be established to retain Northern Ireland's ties to Great Britain, while also setting tenuous links with the Republic of Ireland in the south.

The governments made their dramatic initiative to kick-start all-party political talks that have been stalled almost since they began in June 1996. In recent weeks, the stakes in Northern Ireland have been raised, as tit-for-tat killings among paramilitaries have threatened to destroy a fragile cease-fire and plunge the province into another cycle of violence.

It appears that the new initiative will at least get the parties talking about the core issues that divide them. Seven of theeight parties attending the resumption of the peace talks yesterday gave their cautious approval to the new proposals.

The eighth party, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, said it wouldn't make a "knee-jerk" response. But privately, the leaders say it falls well short of their demands for a united Ireland.

"There has been a breakthrough, I don't know how big, but it's there," Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said. "People are willing to come back to talk about it."

The fuller debate on the proposals will begin today.

Officials said the governments weren't trying to dictate a final agreement, but were seeking to set an agenda.

"It's our best judgment of what might be the main elements of an overall settlement," Mowlam said. "I believe it to be fair and balanced."

Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews said "we have produced a road map to a new agreement."

John Hume, Northern Ireland's leading Roman Catholic politician, who is head of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, said the document addressed "the central issues and the central relationships that go to the heart of our problems."

But trying to balance the aspirations of two communities and carve out a deal has bedeviled politicians here for much of the century. When Ireland became independent in the 1920s, the six jTC northern counties remained firmly linked with Great Britain.

In Northern Ireland, the majority Protestants have favored the union with Britain, while the minority Catholics sought to reunite the country.

The new political initiative offers a bit of the old and the new.

Northern Ireland has been ruled by local parliaments and assemblies in the past, but the bodies were often bitterly opposed by the minority Catholics, who found themselves outflanked at every turn by Protestant politicians.

The proposed Northern Ireland Assembly would take over many of the legislative and executive duties now held by Britain's Northern Ireland secretary. It would be elected by proportional representation, meaning that each party would gain seats -- and presumably power -- in the new legislature.

Power would also be shared in two new bodies. Representatives from the new Northern Ireland Assembly would join a so-called "Council of the British Isles," joining representatives from new assemblies established in Scotland and Wales.

A north-south ministerial council would be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish government in Dublin. ,, That council would likely deal with cross-border issues like tourism and agriculture.

Many Protestants have opposed such cross-border councils, fearing they might lead to a united Ireland. They want power over Northern Ireland to reside in Great Britain.

But the document claims Ireland could revise -- and perhaps even give up -- its 1937 constitutional claim over the six counties that make up British-held Northern Ireland.

The British-Irish blueprint said only that the two governments would "not have a problem" agreeing to "changes" in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which deal with claims over the north.

David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, said the Irish government "acknowledged the reality that we are looking at a United Kingdom outcome."

The document also sets out to protect "fundamental human, civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights," of both communities, and calls for the establishment of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.

It also calls for "dealing with issues such as prisoners, security in all its aspects, policing and decommissioning of weapons."

Tough negotiating lies ahead. But former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, who helped set the peace process in motion, said that "everybody is going to have to accept less than what they would like if there is going to be a compromise."

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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