Britain, Ireland to offer blueprint for peace

Thursday, April 10, 2003

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Britain and Ireland put the finishing touches on a long-awaited blueprint for advancing the Northern Ireland peace accord, with Britain saying it wants its police and army to stop using plastic bullets -- a long-sought Catholic demand.

The Anglo-Irish document is aimed at reviving a power-sharing administration of Protestants and Catholics that was shut down by Britain over allegations of Irish Republican Army spying.

The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, prepared to unveil their plans together today, the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday pact that brought self-government to the British province.

Their blueprint seeks to spur the IRA to renounce violence and resume disarming within weeks -- paving the way for power-sharing to be revived before or after a May 29 legislative election here. Although the IRA largely has been sticking to its 1997 cease-fire, it has been accused of a wide range of suspicious activities since 1999, when Protestants of the Ulster Unionist Party agreed to share power with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, in a wider four-party coalition.

The IRA was supposed to have disarmed completely by mid-2000 as part of the 1998 deal. Instead, the outlawed group secretly scrapped a few dumps in October 2001 and April 2002, leaving an estimated 100 tons of weaponry outstanding.

After police uncovered evidence the IRA was using Sinn Fein's access to power to gather intelligence on potential targets, Britain and Ireland agreed the IRA must cease all activity.

In a gesture to Sinn Fein opinion, Britain announced Wednesday it wants the police and army to stop using plastic bullets by the end of the year.

The 3 1/2-inch-long, flat-nosed cylinders knock down rioters and can cause severe injuries, particularly to the head. Plastic bullets have killed 21 people, although none since 1989.

Northern Ireland Security Minister Jane Kennedy said British security forces increasingly would rely on water cannons and pepper sprays. She said weapons manufacturers were trying to design "an acceptable and effective and less lethal alternative" to plastic bullets.

President Bush, who met Blair and Ahern in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, joined them in appealing for bold peacemaking moves from the IRA.

Britain's governor for the province, Paul Murphy, told lawmakers Wednesday in London, "None of this will work unless there is a commitment from the IRA, and from paramilitaries in general, to ensure we live in a peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland. There has to be a cessation of paramilitary activity -- real, total and permanent."

But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he would not accept any proposals that made his party's right to hold office conditional on IRA good behavior.

The major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, insists that Thursday's proposals must include new powers allowing Sinn Fein to be ejected from the administration if the IRA violates its 1997 cease-fire.

"This party is not going to be accountable for anything other than ourselves," Adams insisted.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's police and courts focused Wednesday on the continuing threat from anti-Catholic paramilitary groups.

In Belfast Crown Court, Justice Ronnie Weatherup sentenced a member of an illegal Protestant gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, for the 1996 murder of a Catholic taxi driver.

Weatherup said Clifford McKeown, 43, must serve at least 24 years in prison for what he called the "chilling execution" of Michael McGoldrick.

McKeown, already in prison for possessing illegal weapons, shot the 31-year-old cabbie five times in the back of the head. He could ultimately win a much earlier release under terms of the Good Friday deal, which allowed more than 500 convicted terrorists to gain early parole.

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