Leaders say Northern Ireland talks now a matter of timing
July 1, 1999
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- A matter of timing remains a final obstacle in salvaging the Northern Ireland peace agreement, the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland announced Thursday.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said the remaining dispute in the talks centers around which should come first -- the creation of a provincial, Cabinet-style government or the disarming of paramilitaries.
The talks with Catholic and Protestant politicians resumed Thursday after stretching past a midnight Wednesday deadline and going into the pre-dawn hours Thursday morning.
"The entire civilized world will not understand if we cannot put this together and make it work. They simply won't understand it, and rightly," Blair said.
"So we are prepared to come here again and give it another try ... This is the thread by which the future of Northern Ireland hangs."
The talks are aimed at settling disagreements over last year's so-called Good Friday accord, which included turning over administration of Northern Ireland from London to a Protestant-Catholic coalition government.
Ahern said two key players in the talks -- the Ulster Unionists, the largest pro-British Protestant party, and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army -- have made great progress during the week of negotiations, but added, "What is not there is the timing and sequencing.
"There's an awful lot to gain and a frightening amount to lose," Ahern said.
Blair said both sides have agreed to "a fully inclusive executive" and agrees that the paramilitaries -- particularly the Irish Republican Army -- must agree to decommission their weapons by the May 2000 deadline in the agreement.
The dispute is "no longer one of basic principle between the two parties, but one of sequencing and timing," he said.
Protestants have refused to allow Sinn Fein to fill its two seats in the 12-member Cabinet that would be set up under the Good Friday pact until the IRA agrees to a timetable for turning over its weapons.
"We came here in hope that progress could be achieved, we came here in the hope that there would be significant movement by the republican movement for us to enable us to move forward together," Protestant leader David Trimble said earlier.
"Unfortunately we have over the course of the last few days not received any concrete proposals from other parties. Nothing has been given to us in writing," he said.
Sinn Fein negotiator Bairbre de-Brun said, "The Unionists are constantly coming up in the last number of weeks with new excuses and every time you think you might have the possibility of reaching some kind of agreement, you have another spokesperson coming out with another angle, and it can be very difficult."
U.S. President Bill Clinton phoned Blair Wednesday and told him he would get personally involved in the discussions if Blair determined it would be helpful. Clinton also spoke with Northern Ireland's main Protestant leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and urged them to settle their differences.
"Both conversations were substantive. He talked through the issues with both of the leaders and encouraged them to stay at it until they work through these differences," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.
"The president just made the point to both of them (Adams and Trimble) that they need to stay at this and work out their differences ... " Lockhart said.
The White House spokesman said he expected Clinton to "remain engaged" in the peace process and said that the president might make some more telephone calls on the matter during the night.
Lockhart said Clinton spoke separately to Trimble and Adams from his Air Force One aircraft as he flew home to Washington after a one-day trip to Chicago.
The call to Trimble lasted about 10 minutes, and the call to Adams, head of the Irish Republican Army's political wing Sinn Fein, about 12 minutes.
Asked if Clinton had raised the arms decommissioning issue with Adams, Lockhart replied: "I will tell you without getting into the substance that he raised the relevant issues."
The deal that the British and Irish prime ministers are pushing would call for the republican movement to unequivocally accept decommissioning by May 2000.
Trust is a key point
A Cabinet-style executive government would be appointed immediately but would have only "shadow authority" until formal powers are transferred by the House of Commons in September.
The International Commission on Decommissioning would set out procedures and a timetable for turning in weapons with the first phase of weapons collection beginning in November or early December. Decommissioning would be completed by May 2000 as called for in the Good Friday text.
Problems remained, however. Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party is reportedly facing the defection of six members of his party because the deal gives Sinn Fein and the republicans six months before decommissioning begins.
The deal would meet the UUP demand that the executive be appointed immediately, but Sinn Fein was said to be upset that the executive would only operate as a "shadow" government until September.
Republicans have been reluctant to turn in their arms, not trusting the Protestants to hold to the Good Friday deal. Protestants have been reluctant to accept republican promises to disarm, not trusting the republicans to live up to their word.
Catholic moderate John Hume said, "It's all really a matter of distrust, which is very natural given what this community has been through over many years."
Reg Empey, an Ulster Unionist Party negotiator, agreed that trust is a key point.
"I suppose the parallel you might draw would be with the Kosovo Liberation Army. They are being disarmed because they pose a threat to the community in that area, and what we have here after 30 years of terrorism is naturally people are distrustful.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Northern Ireland deadline passes without agreement
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