Stalemate over disarming IRA threatens to sink peace accord

Tomorrow is deadline for naming Cabinet of Catholics, Protestants

April 01, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Political leaders worked furiously into today to rescue the Northern Ireland peace agreement, trying to pull it back from the brink of failure just as the landmark accord reaches its first anniversary.

Negotiators from major factions and the British and Irish prime ministers held around-the-clock talks without notable progress on the dispute that threatens to sink the deal: when and how to disarm the Irish Republican Army.

Unless the dispute is resolved in the next few days, observers say, the peace process risks losing so much credibility that it may not recover, prompting a new cycle of violence that could escalate and cause the peace talks to collapse.

It is a sign of the seriousness of the situation that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spent much of the past two days in Northern Ireland, even while war rages in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement -- which promised to end decades of violence in this British province -- as well as the deadline for a new joint Protestant-Catholic Cabinet to be named. Pro-British unionists insist that no member of the IRA's political arm, Sinn Fein, can be included in the Cabinet unless the IRA starts disarming.

A failure to meet the deadline could heighten tensions just before Monday's official start of the "marching season," when Protestant groups stage parades that tend to touch off clashes as they pass through Catholic neighborhoods.

Blair and Ireland's prime minister, Bertie Ahern, put the best spin on the situation, saying the two sides were drawing closer. But most of the other participants were less sanguine.

The man at the hub of the current impasse is David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in reaching the agreement a year ago.

Now, having been elected head of the province's soon-to-be-installed government, Trimble says that, even though Sinn Fein is entitled to two spots in the Cabinet, he will not seat them unless the IRA begins handing in weapons.

Sinn Fein says Trimble's demand goes beyond the terms of the agreement, which set May 2000 as a deadline for completing disarmament but did not say when it must begin.

In its annual Easter message, released yesterday, the IRA said it "wants to see a permanent peace in this country," and stressed that "IRA guns are silent." The organization has observed a cease-fire since July 1997.

The statement made no mention of disarmament. But Sinn Fein negotiator Mitchel McLaughlin said that because every previous IRA Easter message contained a pledge never to relinquish arms, the omission should be seen as a conciliatory gesture.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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