Britain, Ireland delay peace plan

Friday, April 11, 2003

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Dashing expectations of a breakthrough, Britain and Ireland withheld their new Northern Ireland peace plans Thursday after failing to get long-sought commitments from the Irish Republican Army, government aides said.

Sinn Fein party leader Gerry Adams, a reputed IRA chief, insisted the outlawed group was not responsible for the deadlock.

Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord, was the two governments' target date for announcing the new plans.

The impasse, typical of the suspicion and recrimination that have dogged peacemaking efforts in this British territory for a decade, raised doubts about a planned May 29 election for the moribund Northern Ireland legislature. Britain already postponed the vote once.

Adams, whose party is linked with the IRA, demanded that Britain and Ireland "leave the IRA out" of current arguments and immediately publish the full text of their plans, which have been in the works since October and widely leaked.

They include guarantees of freedom for IRA fugitives, British military cutbacks, justice reforms and other moves designed to entice the IRA into resuming disarmament and abandoning hostile activities.

If the IRA made those commitments, Britain would seek to revive Northern Ireland's mothballed Catholic-Protestant administration, the central achievement of the 1998 deal.

But the environment for a deal evaporated in morning telephone negotiations involving Adams and the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

Blair and Ahern were about to fly to Hillsborough Castle near Belfast to unveil the document. Earlier this week at the castle, they joined President Bush in appealing for the IRA to fade away and Sinn Fein to accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's police.

The prime ministers canceled Thursday's event because the proposed text of an IRA statement -- discussed Wednesday during face-to-face meetings in Belfast between Adams and Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell -- was politically inadequate, a British government official said on condition of anonymity.

Ahern instead flew to London to discuss the impasse with Blair. After a 90-minute meeting, the two premiers agreed they could be in Hillsborough publishing their plans Friday -- but only if Sinn Fein and the IRA put their cards on the negotiating table, too.

"We'll be in contact with the parties overnight," Blair said. "We've got to make sure that people understand the time is urgent, and I hope even at this late stage the difficulties can be ironed out and dealt with."

Ahern said the impasse was "resolvable."

"Hopefully we can move on," he said. "If not, it won't be our fault."

The other three parties in Northern Ireland's suspended administration said people already had a good idea of what Britain wanted to do but no clue about IRA intentions.

Adams' moderate Catholic rival, Social Democratic and Labor Party leader Mark Durkan, said leaders of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement "cannot evade their share of the blame."

Durkan chided Sinn Fein for continuing to boycott civilian boards overseeing the reform of Northern Ireland's mostly Protestant police force, an issue fundamental to promoting stability for the territory's 1.7 million people.

David Trimble, leader of the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, accused Sinn Fein and IRA leaders of holding Northern Ireland hostage for ransom.

Trimble and Durkan were joint leaders of the crisis-prone coalition, which Britain shut down in October for the third time in three years.

Police that month uncovered evidence the IRA was using Sinn Fein's access to power to gather intelligence on potential targets. Four people, including the senior Sinn Fein legislative aide, were charged with stealing documents of use to the IRA.

That was too much for the Ulster Unionists, who in 1999 agreed to share power with Sinn Fein on condition the IRA disarmed fully, as the Good Friday agreement envisaged.

Trimble said his party would return to the Cabinet table with Sinn Fein only if Irish republicans agree "to forswear violence, to wind up their paramilitary wing and to complete the process of disarmament."

Blair, Ahern and Bush broadly endorsed Trimble's position in a joint statement Tuesday.

Blair and Ahern also reportedly want to tie Sinn Fein's right to hold office to the IRA's future good behavior -- an idea Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin called "a deal-breaker."

The current system has required the entire administration to be mothballed whenever Ulster Unionist-Sinn Fein tensions flared over alleged IRA activities.

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