Irish peace negotiators ready to move forward, Mitchell says

IRA, unionists positioned to end `current impasse' on province's government

November 16, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Northern Ireland's stalled peace process regained momentum yesterday with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell saying local parties can resolve the deadlock on handing over terrorist arms and establishing a local government.

Sounding a note of optimism after 10 weeks of talks designed to implement the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, Mitchell, the chief mediator, appeared to be setting the stage for a series of small but important political steps in the British-run province.

"I believe that the parties now understand each other's concerns and requirements far better than before and are committed to resolving the current impasse," Mitchell said in Belfast. "I am increasingly confident a way will be found to do so."

While Northern Ireland's 30-year terror war appears to be receding into history, political differences continue to divide majority Protestants, who want to retain links to Britain, and minority Roman Catholics, many of whom want a united Ireland.

The stalemate revolves around how to get paramilitary units to hand over their weapons while creating a power-sharing executive, or cabinet, to oversee Northern Ireland's local assembly. The Good Friday peace deal called for the complete destruction of terrorist arms by next May, but set no starting date.

The Ulster Unionists, the majority Protestant party, were pushing for a policy of "no guns, no government," meaning they would block the executive if the Irish Republican Army did not start turning over weapons. Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, was seeking to gain its two executive spots before the groups decommissioned.

The parties are due to make public their positions today in what is seen as a carefully choreographed campaign to sow support for a deal. Local media reports, so far unconfirmed, have said the IRA eventually will express confidence in the peace process, disavow violence and appoint a go-between to work out a timetable for decommissioning.

Although the moves would fall short of destroying weapons, they might open the way for political leaders to create the local, power-sharing executive and establish cross-border bodies to link the north with the southern Irish republic.

Mitchell said the parties that backed the Good Friday agreement, and the British and Irish governments, "share the view that devolution should occur and the institution should be established at the earliest possible date.

"It is also common ground that decommissioning should occur as quickly as possible and that the commission should play a central role in achieving this under the terms of the agreement," Mitchell said.

It was clear from other public statements that the political climate has changed. In an unusual joint television appearance, Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis and Sinn Fein senior negotiator Gerry Kelly, went out of their way to support each other.

Maginnis said he realized "republicans do have a problem, a huge problem with disarmament."

Kelly praised unionist leaders, adding he understood they would have "big problems to bring this [agreement] to their constituency."

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, faces what could be the greatest challenge of his political career as he tries to sell the pact to his membership. The legislative wing of his party seems to be split. So, Trimble will go straight to the grass roots, attempting to gain the backing of the 900-strong Ulster Unionist Council, which is expected to meet Nov. 27.

Trimble cautioned reporters yesterday that this was no "make-or-break week" in Northern Ireland politics. But speaking to a group of Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren, he kept up the pressure on the paramilitaries.

"We are not going to have by any stretch of the imagination peace and democracy if there are private armies in existence in Northern Ireland," Trimble said.

Maginnis appeared optimistic.

"If expectations are met, the reality is that we are moving towards a deal," he told Britain's Press Association.

"There is, I think, something that allows parties to the agreement to meet their objectives in a way that does not smack of surrender but rather allows them to acknowledge their voluntary efforts within the process."

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