Slight hope for break in N. Ireland stalemate

Officials try to assess chance of paramilitaries disarming by next May

June 30, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In what could be either a desperate play for time or the first glimmer of hope, the planned release yesterday of a report that was supposed to offer the last real chance to forge a compromise over IRA weapons and clear the way for a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland was delayed until today.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, met with representatives of the Irish Republican Army and Protestant loyalist paramilitary groups again yesterday, trying to gauge how serious the various paramilitary groups are about turning in their weapons by next May, Irish and British government sources said.

The meetings were similar to those held in April 1998, when the prime ministers received assurances from paramilitary groups that they would support the Good Friday Agreement, the political settlement that is now in danger of collapse because of the dispute over IRA weapons.

The report, by retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, was to assess whether the disarming of the IRA and other paramilitary groups is possible by May. It will be released hours before tonight's midnight deadline set by Blair.

Blair has said that the deadline was "absolute" and that he had "no plan B" if the deadline expired with no decision.

The report was held back after a spokesman for Blair claimed its release yesterday could jeopardize "real progress" being made in the negotiations.

Blair's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, said de Chastelain's report "was ready" but Blair and Ahern "were able to tell him that despite difficulties, they were making real progress. The progress will be relevant to General de Chastelain's report, and he has agreed to delay formal presentation of his report so that he can take account of the progress today."

Officials would not publicly explain what constituted that progress, but government sources said a deal could hinge on Blair and Ahern receiving assurances from the leaders of various paramilitary groups that they were serious about turning in weapons.

Reg Empey, a member of the Ulster Unionists negotiating team, flatly rejected suggestions that any progress had been made. Other unionists suggested the report was being altered to put pressure on them to accept a compromise and sit with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing government before the IRA begins disarming.

The refusal of the unionists to form the government, and of the IRA to turn in any weapons, is at the core of the stalemate that threatens the peace process.

British and Irish government sources here on the second of three days of talks aimed at resolving the dispute over IRA weapons said de Chastelain needed clarification on the IRA's intentions.

Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, made a submission to de Chastelain, but sources close to the disarmament commission he heads said the submission was unclear on what the IRA was prepared to do.

Sinn Fein says it is striving for disarmament but cannot make pledges on behalf of the IRA.

Blair and Ahern "want a definitive answer from the IRA" on whether it is prepared to turn in any weapons. Such an assurance would then be offered to the unionists, who would be asked to drop their demand for weapons up front.

Blair urged both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, to take a leap of faith. Blair and Ahern have vowed to continue negotiating until midnight, which Blair has called the "absolute final" deadline.

"We have come so far," said Blair. "People will simply neither understand nor forgive if we don't make this thing work."

Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, said his party was committed to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including disarming, and criticized unionists who were saying the talks were hopeless.

"People out there don't want smart remarks from their political leaders. They want results," said Adams.

Chief Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness refused to answer questions about the likelihood of IRA disarmament, but noted: "We need to crack the nut. I think it can be cracked."

Irish police searching for the remains of people killed by the IRA in the 1970s said yesterday that they found the skeletons of two people in Colgagh, County Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland.

The remains are believed to be those of Brian McKinney and John McClory, two Belfast men whom the IRA said it killed in 1978 after they stole guns from the IRA.

The IRA's admission that it had killed nine people in the 1970s and buried them in unmarked graves was intended to be a good-will gesture, but the IRA's inability to pinpoint the sites of the remains has made it a public relations disaster. Before yesterday, the remains of only one victim had been found.

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