Northern Ireland peace accord put on hold
Good Friday accords in limbo as Unionists skip Cabinet
July 15, 1999
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Northern Ireland's embryonic coalition government foundered before it could take power Thursday amid a long-standing disagreement over disarming the Irish Republican Army.
The British government had been scheduled to confer power on a new Northern Ireland government on Sunday, ending nearly three decades of direct rule from London. But, on Thursday, Unionist leaders refused to nominate Cabinet members, and a moderate Catholic leader resigned.
Establishing a local government for Northern Ireland was part of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which will now undergo a formal review, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office announced.
The fledgling government has been hamstrung by the mutual mistrust between predominantly Catholic nationalists -- who support uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic -- and Unionists, mostly Protestant advocates of remaining part of Britain.
"The Good Friday agreement will continue, but it cannot get implemented," Blair said in London.
"That is the outcome of today, and I hope I'm right in saying 'not yet.' And I hope I'm right in saying that some dialogue and more time to consider the deal on offer can produce the outcome everyone wants -- and we do all want it, here and in Northern Ireland," he said.
Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the man who helped broker the Good Friday accord, will formally review the pact's implementation next Tuesday.
"People should not allow themselves to be deflected or disheartened," Ahern said, adding that his government remained "determined that, working closely with the British government and the parties, a way can and will be found to implement the agreement in full."
Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said it was time to look forward, not to lay blame on any party.
"The last thing the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recriminations," Mowlam told the House of Commons.
"We either move forward together, or we do not move forward at all," she added.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, who helped broker the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement, said Thursday's events marked a "difficult day."
"It is a particularly a difficult day for Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Ahern, who have performed heroic service," Clinton said in Washington. "And it is hard for most Americans, I'm sure, and most people throughout the world, to understand how a peace process can be stalled when both sides agree on every element of the peace process."
Ulster Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland Assembly First Minister David Trimble said the Ulster Unionists would not name members to a Cabinet until the Sinn Fein-allied Irish Republican Army starts handing over its weapons -- a longtime sticking point.
"In the absence of those certainties, in the absence of those commitments, we have decided it's premature to form a shadow administration," said Trimble, who would serve as First Minister in a coalition government.
"Therefore, we make it clear: I will not be making any nominations today to ministerial office in the assembly under that formula," he said.
The Ulster Unionists' refusal to move forward prompted the resignation of Seamus Mallon, a moderate Catholic leader and Trimble's deputy first minister. Mallon's resignation brings down Trimble's leadership as well, and he accused Trimble's party of "dishonoring this agreement."
"Permutation after permutation has been tried. We have tried, and I have tried every move -- in the book and outside it -- to make sure this agreement worked," said Mallon, the deputy leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party.
Nominations went ahead with only nationalists taking part. The Good Friday accords require both nationalists and Unionists to participate in forming a government.
The rhetoric hardened among the more extreme parties in the proposed government, as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams repeatedly compared the Unionists to South Africa's apartheid leaders.
"What we have here is a cul de sac (dead end) of history," Adams said.
Trimble's announcement drew sharp criticism as well from Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Fein spokesman, who sneered at "lectures about democracy from Unionists."
"You know this is not about guns, or about keeping Sinn Fein out of the executive. This is the same thing we went through the last 30 years, which is Unionism refusing to sit down with nationalists or Catholics," he said.
Asked whether Thursday's developments put the IRA cease-fire in danger, Kelly said "The IRA speaks for itself." But he added that the Irish nationalist community has little enthusiasm left for compromise.
"We have stretched the Republican community to the nth degree. We cannot stretch any further," he said.
Hard-line Unionist leader Ian Paisley denounced what he described as the threat behind Sinn Fein's reluctance to commit to disarmament.
"We don't accept their word," Paisley said. "If they turn to violence, that is their doing, and they will turn to violence if they don't get their way."
But Adams said Sinn Fein would continue to work toward implementing the accords, adding, "What we saw here was the last hurrah of the Paisley-type monster that has dominated politics here for so long."
The unexpectedly stubborn Unionist stand has dealt a severe blow to Blair's hopes of forming an unprecedented joint administration after a year of deadlock. A Northern Irish assembly last year elected Trimble to lead a four-party Cabinet.
Three of the 12 seats are earmarked for Trimble's Ulster Unionists and three for the SDLP. Two others would each go to Sinn Fein and to the Democratic Unionists, a hard-line Protestant party that consistently opposes the Good Friday agreement.
Now that the executive for Northern Ireland has failed to form, that plan will go into review, possibly for months, Mowlam said. She refused to blame any of the parties for the failure.
"Today is a setback, it would be foolish to deny that," she said. "But it would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday agreement cannot continue."
Mallon said he was confident the Good Friday accords would be salvaged and strengthened after Thursday's tumult. But he said, "I'm very sad that in effect, it had to get to this point to assure that this agreement will be saved."
Correspondents Richard Blystone and Fionnuala Sweeney contributed to this report.
Unionists reject Blair concessions for peace plan
The Irish News
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