Sides Work to Restore Power-Sharing in N. Ireland
Protestant and Roman Catholic negotiators trying to revive Northern Ireland’s local power-sharing government continued talks here for a second day Tuesday with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
On Monday, Ireland and Britain presented the parties with a 28-page document they hope will form the basis of a deal to revive power-sharing, which London suspended five months ago amid allegations that the outlawed Irish Republican Army was operating a spy ring at the government’s heart.
Reform of the British province’s criminal justice system and the disarmament of the IRA are among the key issues that negotiators hope to resolve.
The key parties in the power-sharing government have been Sinn Fein, a predominantly Catholic group that is the political wing of the IRA, and the Ulster Unionists, who are largely Protestant. Sinn Fein wants to see Northern Ireland united with the Irish Republic; unionists favor continued strong ties with Britain.
Negotiators said Tuesday that they were optimistic but that prospects rested on whether the IRA would finally lay down its arms. Despite the pressures of a possible war with Iraq, Blair stayed an unscheduled extra day in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to push for a deal.
Late Tuesday, Blair said that elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly would be delayed, from May 1 to May 29, to allow more time for the two sides to negotiate.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said there was no chance of returning to power-sharing “until we have got a clear statement from the IRA ... that they have gone away, that their war is over.”
Sinn Fein Chairman Mitchel McLaughlin told reporters: “It’s not rocket science, we don’t entirely trust each other, but we have made progress and we believe we will continue to.”
Northern Ireland’s legislature and Cabinet were set up under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which aimed to end three decades of Protestant-Catholic violence.