Irish talks yield plan

Britain and Ireland call for disarming, new government

2 weeks of `reflection'

Only Ulster Unionists refuse to embrace steps toward peace

July 03, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON -- Britain and Ireland put forward last night a proposal of potentially historic dimensions to save the peace in Northern Ireland, but Protestant Ulster Unionists expressed doubts as to whether they could accept it.

The deal would take the gun out of Northern Irish politics for the first time in more than three decades, with the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitaries beginning to surrender weapons this summer. It would allow the formation of self-governing institutions to take place by July 15.

All Roman Catholic and Protestant parties were given two weeks in which to reflect on the deal and discuss it with their memberships. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, embraced the proposal, as did all other parties except the Ulster Unionists.

If the new plan falls through, any chance of progress on implementing the 1998 peace agreement may well be deferred for months, and a return to all-out violence could not be ruled out.

Protestants and Catholics have been deadlocked for months over how to implement last year's Good Friday peace agreement, and Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland spent all week here trying to forge a breakthrough. The long-running issue of disarming the Irish Republican Army kept the talks deadlocked.

The "period of reflection" called for by the two governments will take place while tensions in Northern Ireland are high because of the summer marching season. Police and the British army are girded for possible violence tomorrow, when members of the Protestant Orange Order march to a church at Drumcree near Portadown and will be barred from marching back through a Catholic neighborhood.

Other contentious marches are scheduled for July 12, the anniversary of a battle in which Protestant King William III defeated Catholic forces in the Battle of the Boyne in the 17th century.

If the British-Irish deal goes forward, the following will happen:

A Northern Ireland provincial Cabinet, in which Protestants and Catholics will share posts, will be established on July 15, and legislative powers for a Northern Ireland Assembly will be granted three days later.

The Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary groups will notify the Decommissioning [Disarmament] Commission within a matter of days that they are ready to start handing in weapons.

Actual disarmament will begin about four weeks later, and be completed by the May 2000 deadline set out in the Good Friday peace agreement of April 1998.

If any party to the agreement fails to honor its obligations, the Northern Ireland government institutions that are to be set up will be dissolved immediately.

Blair, outlining the proposals, told the Northern Ireland parties they now have the opportunity "to change the path of history."

Ahern said: "The Rubicon has been crossed."

The proposal, he said, offers hope that "a real political alternative to violence can now be put in place."

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who is also Northern Ireland's first minister, expressed strong doubts about whether his party could accept the proposal and did not sound as though he was prepared to try to sell the membership on it.

Trimble said acceptance of the Blair-Ahern proposal would mean a change of fundamental importance in his party's policy. The Ulster Unionists have always said they would not agree to a power-sharing Cabinet in Northern Ireland unless the IRA disarms first, but the proposal calls for them to accept disarmament afterward.

Trimble also criticized the British-Irish pledge to dissolve all institutions to be set up under the peace agreement if any party fails to meet its obligations. That, he said, was "unfair" because "it treats democrats and terrorists" the same. "If terrorists default, the penalty is suffered on democrats" as well, he said.

Trimble's negative tone contrasted with that of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who said: "There is an enormous sigh of relief across this island tonight, and around the world."

Adams addressed this message to Unionists: "We want to work in partnership with you. Those who don't want the future will stand in a chorus line that will put young men and women in their graves. Let's go from here and make this work."

President Clinton also welcomed the proposal. "Don't let this thing come apart now," he said.

Blair and Ahern put forward their proposal after Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, chairman of the Decommissioning Commission, released a long-awaited report expressing confidence that Sinn Fein's assurances about IRA disarmament "would be endorsed by the IRA and reciprocated by loyalists [Protestant paramilitaries]."

But the report said de Chastelain has not had a response from the IRA as to whether it would be prepared to disarm completely by May 2000.

De Chastelain noted there had been speculation his commission was being told by the British and Irish governments what to do. "We are an independent commission," he said, adding that the governments had not seen his report until it was presented to them yesterday morning.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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