Peace accord 'close' on N. Ireland Blair and Mowlam meet with Sinn Fein, hope for deal by Easter

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

LONDON -- In his most upbeat statement yet that Northern Ireland may be nearing a political accord to end decades of violence, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that the outline of a settlement was "agonizingly close."

Acknowledging that 'we've obviously got to get the detail right," Blair insisted that a deal could be struck by an Easter deadline. The package of proposals could be submitted to voters on both sides of the Irish border in a May referendum.

"I'm still optimistic, maybe stubbornly optimistic, but I'm optimistic that we can get to that deadline, provided there's the good will there for people to negotiate," Blair told Britain's ITN television news.

Echoing Blair's statements, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said there are "only about 10 or 12 issues" of disagreement and "large areas of agreement."

"No doubt, we are closer than we ever have been before," Mowlam told a group of U.S. reporters.

The positive comments came after Blair and Mowlam held a 55-minute meeting with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

After two IRA-linked killings last month, Sinn Fein was suspended from the all-party talks chaired by former Sen.

George J. Mitchell of Maine. Although it could have returned Monday, Sinn Fein, in a face-saving move, is likely to wait until March 23, after a St. Patrick's Day slowdown, to rejoin the process.

"We certainly want to see an agreement reached as quickly as possible," Adams said after his visit to Blair's office at 10 Downing St.

Adams already has conceded that the final settlement will fall short of the united Ireland goal wanted by many in Northern Ireland's minority Roman Catholic population. Northern Ireland's majority Protestants seek to remain a part of Great Britain.

The British and Irish governments previously released a document that foreshadows a final deal. The agreement could ** include an assembly for Northern Ireland and cross-border bodies linking the British province to the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland's ties to the British mainland would likely be secured by its inclusion in a Council of the British Isles, with regional bodies from Wales and Scotland.

Formidable obstacles remain before a settlement can be achieved. Northern Ireland's array of political parties must resolve disagreements over the proposals. Still to be tackled are the decommissioning of weapons held by guerrilla groups and the release of prisoners held for terrorist offenses.

The peace process has been dragging for 16 months. Recent developments in Northern Ireland have not been encouraging. A mortar attack this week in Armagh had the earmarks of an IRA operation, police said.

Last week, the integrated village of Poyntzpass was devastated by the killings of two friends -- one Catholic and one Protestant.

Despite the gloom in the streets, the politicians are trying to remain positive. Many of them will take their plea for peace to the United States before St. Patrick's Day.

Most of Ireland's leading politicians will celebrate the holiday at the White House, in an annual get-together that has helped break down barriers between often-volatile personalities.

"When personal contacts get established, you're more likely to get something else established," said Mowlam, who this year will become the first British foreign secretary to attend the gathering. She also will make stops in Boston and New York on her tour that begins Sunday.

"I don't think I have any green," Mowlam said, side-stepping a politically charged question on whether she would wear green clothing on St. Patrick's Day.

"I tend to be a navy person."

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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