British, Irish premiers press Northern Ireland leaders for deal on IRA, power-sharing

Thursday, September 16th 2004, 8:39 pm
By: News On 6

LEEDS CASTLE, England (AP) _ A deal taking shape Friday in negotiations on Northern Ireland's future would require the outlawed Irish Republican Army to resume disarmament and issue a new statement that, for the first time, would definitively renounce violence.

In return, however, the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party is demanding an ironclad commitment up front from the Democratic Unionists, the major British Protestant party, to form and sustain a joint administration.

All sides reported progress on day two of the talks, which are being led by the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Both premiers insist this will be their last major push to revive a Roman Catholic-Protestant administration in the British territory, the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998.

The Democratic Unionists, who still refuse to talk face-to-face with Sinn Fein leaders, publicly insist they will reserve their position until they can actually confirm the scale of IRA disarmament and weigh the IRA's words.

The negotiations, which began Thursday at this magnificent 12th-century castle southeast of London, are supposed to end Saturday _ in no small part because Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley, an evangelist and leader of his own stridently anti-Catholic church, shuns politics on Sundays.

Raising the sense of an imminent deadline, Blair's official spokesman said Thursday night the premiers would not devote such concentrated time to the Northern Ireland morass again.

``We are not coming back to another session like this. You can't keep putting off the point of decision,'' he said.

At midday Friday, the spokesman said the negotiators were making progress, but he said it was not yet possible to determine whether a deal would happen.

``Going on the optimism-pessimism roller coaster just makes you dizzy. Let's just wait and see,'' he said.

A moderate-led administration suffered several breakdowns and ultimately collapsed in October 2002 over the IRA's refusal to disarm fully and its alleged involvement in a range of threatening activities, including preparing for a potential breakdown of its 1997 cease-fire.

The political confrontation hardened the attitudes of Northern Ireland voters, who in November made the extreme poles of opinion _ the Democratic Unionists and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein _ the two biggest parties in the Northern Ireland legislature.

Those two parties, rather than the moderates, now wield the power to form or block the next administration.

The first task facing the 108-member legislature would be to elect leaders of the next power-sharing Cabinet. But Britain has not allowed the legislature to convene, knowing the attempted election of leaders would fail and trigger the body's speedy dissolution.

Moderate Catholic leader Mark Durkan, whose Social Democratic and Labour Party inspired the peace process by being the first to negotiate directly with Sinn Fein, said he shared the two governments' frustration with both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

Durkan said negotiations so far had ``usefully narrowed down'' the issues still causing arguments, but he described the atmosphere as ``jaundiced. We've been through so many talks processes. This is the umpteenth time we've been dealing with some of these issues.''

Several negotiators, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the British and Irish governments may present a take-it-or-leave-it plan directly to Northern Ireland's people if Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionists walk away from Leeds Castle without agreement.

This scenario involves convening the legislature in January, by which time the IRA would have made its moves and the Democratic Unionists would have faced internal pressure to accept them.