Eleventh-hour negotiations to rescue the Northern Ireland peace accord ended without a breakthrough Saturday, but the British and Irish leaders mediating the talks said they still hold out hope for a deal.
Having failed to reach an agreement with Northern Ireland’s political parties, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said they will draw up their own proposal and present it to the Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders for a take-it-or-leave-it decision.
“We believe the time for negotiating is through. We are confident we can put through a package for parties to accept or not,” Blair said as he left the secluded mansion in central England where the talks were held. “We are not coming to you today and saying all this is done. It is not. But it can be done.”
The current crisis was triggered July 1 when David Trimble, the leader of Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party, resigned as first minister. He said he would not sit in government with the Irish Republican Army’s political ally, Sinn Fein, any longer unless the paramilitary group began giving up its weapons, as it promised to do last year.
The parties have until Aug. 12 to resolve the impasse on IRA disarmament, British demilitarization and police reforms and to reelect a first minister. If they do not, Britain will either have to dissolve the province’s power-sharing government and resume direct rule or call new elections in Northern Ireland. Either scenario could lead to the collapse of the peace process.
The British and Irish governments have backed Trimble’s demand that the IRA disarm, as has the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the moderate Catholic nationalist element in the coalition government.
Ahern said he and Blair see eye to eye on the way forward. They refused to outline the plan they will soon present to Northern Ireland’s political parties, although they indicated that they will not back Trimble’s demand for IRA disarmament as a precondition for progress on other issues that are important to Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein wants a reduction of Britain’s military activity in the province, an overhaul of the predominantly Protestant police force and the restoration of suspended government institutions.
“The agreement can only succeed if all parts of it are implemented together,” the premiers said in a statement.
Sinn Fein said the British government had offered proposals for reducing its military presence and for carrying out policing reforms, but Trimble insisted that there had been no movement by Sinn Fein on IRA disarmament. The Ulster Unionist Party chief left the talks before they were over, saying he had a plane to catch.
“What should happen is for the republican movement to stop shilly-shallying, to stop prevaricating, to stop trying to blame other people and to simply carry out the promise it made on the 6th of May last year, that it would put its weapons beyond use, completely and verifiably,” Trimble said.
Sinn Fein said the ball is in the British government’s court to come up with a proposal that will resolve the issues.
“We went into this saying the British government needed a strategy to deliver on the Good Friday agreement,” a spokesman for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said, referring to the 1998 peace accord. “We don’t know what that plan will be. We have to wait to see before we can judge it.”
A spokesman for Trimble said his pro-British party would have to see the final proposal before it could pass judgment, but he added, “We aren’t overly optimistic.”
The plan undoubtedly will satisfy neither side, and the question is whether the weight of the two governments will be sufficient to pressure them into a deal. Aides to both Blair and Ahern were circumspect.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have a crystal ball,” said a tired Ahern aide.
When Blair was asked what would happen if the package failed to win the approval of all parties, he said: “We don’t contemplate failure. We want to contemplate success.”