N. Ireland talks fail to meet deadline

Surrender of weapons still stalls government creation

effort continues

July 01, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- The deadline to find a compromise to create a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland passed without agreement last night, but British and Irish leaders pressed on into the morning seeking a deal to revive the stalled peace process.

Protestant unionists would not budge on their refusal to form a government with Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, until the IRA begins turning in arms, while Sinn Fein was unable to get a formal commitment from the IRA that it would begin disarming.

While the absence of an agreement does not bode well for the future stability of Northern Ireland, there was no indication that there would be an immediate return to widespread violence.

The talks adjourned after 3 a.m. today, but the politicians said they would return after a few hours of sleep to continue efforts to salvage last year's landmark Good Friday Agreement.

According to British and Irish government officials, Sinn Fein had promised that it would try to persuade the IRA to turn in weapons. But that "aspiration" was deemed insufficient by the Ulster Unionists, the party that represents middle-class Protestants.

"I'm not looking for a form of words. I'm looking for guns and explosives," said Jefferey Donaldson, the hard-liner who last week rejoined the Ulster Unionist negotiating team.

A frustrated Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, emerged from the negotiations 90 minutes before the midnight deadline to say that the unionist demand for weapons before the formation of a power-sharing Cabinet to run Northern Ireland was unrealistic and not part of the Good Friday pact.

"It's clear to everyone that prior decommissioning is not achievable," said Adams, using the common term here for disarmament.

Moments after Adams spoke, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble took his place before hundreds of reporters outside the Castle Buildings complex where the Good Friday Agreement was reached, denying that Sinn Fein had committed itself to disarming the IRA.

"No such precise offer has been made to us," he said. "We've seen nothing in writing, nothing concrete."

Trimble had earlier hinted that a statement from the IRA commiting itself to turning in arms might be enough to cement a deal, but there was no prospect of that statement being made.

Instead, government sources said, the IRA has indicated to the British and Irish governments that Sinn Fein would have to be sitting in the government for about three months before it would have any realistic chance of persuading IRA members to turn in weapons.

Under the proposal that was still on the table early today, Sinn Fein would formally accept disarming the IRA as an objective, and the 12-member Cabinet, including two Sinn Fein members, would be named next week.

That Cabinet, and the whole Northern Ireland Assembly, would open in September. The IRA would then be expected to begin turning in arms by early December.

Last night, British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke to President Clinton by telephone, and Clinton was expected to talk to various party leaders throughout the night in an attempt to coax them toward a deal.

The round-the-clock negotiations mirrored the ones that led to the Good Friday Agreement, which created a settlement aimed at ending 30 years of sectarian and political conflict that has killed more than 3,500 people in the place the size of Connecticut.

This week's negotiations were meant to save the cornerstone of that agreement, the creation of a power-sharing government to take power back after 27 years of direct rule from London.

Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, set last night's deadline, believing that politicians would put off making hard decisions unless forced to. They spent the last three days trying to cajole both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists to compromise.

While government officials consider Sinn Fein's commitment to the principle of disarming the IRA by next May a compromise, unionists said it was an empty promise they had heard before.

Sinn Fein argued that the Good Friday Agreement does not link its participation in government with the decommissioning of IRA weapons, and the IRA said turning in weapons would amount to a surrender it did not make.

But the unionists, led by Trimble, the first minister of the new assembly, said they could not create a democratic government while one of the main parties was maintaining a private army.

Trimble said the republican movement had to decide whether it would follow Sinn Fein or the IRA.

Despite the discouraging turn to negotiations, the British government official in charge of security, Adam Ingram, said that the cease-fires by the main paramilitary groups remain intact.

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