Tortured path to Ulster peace

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2000, 12:00am

THREE months ago Northern Ireland was clinging on to peace, 1998's Good Friday agreement apparently in tatters with no obvious way back to the negotiating table.

Only the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire remained in place.

While the guerillas insisted in the wake of the February 12 suspension of the British province's power-sharing government that they remained committed to the peace process, everything had seemed to point to a freeze in progress towards a lasting peace.

Two weeks after the suspension of the all-party government, fringe republican terrorists planted a bomb near a dormitory inside a British army barracks in Northern Ireland. Its detonator went off before sleeping soldiers could be killed or maimed. Four days later a rocket launcher and explosives were found near another army base. Then a homemade bomb exploded at a third base.

Signalling a solution to Northern Ireland's political impasse could be months or years away, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the IRA's political wing must become a more powerful player in future negotiations.

Then, in March, David Trimble, the moderate Protestant political leader upon whom much of the hope for lasting progress rested, came near to losing the leadership of his Ulster Unionist party in a hardline rebellion.

Throughout, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, continued to meet in search of a way to relaunch the peace process, but never with more than a glimmer of hope - until late on Friday night.

That was when, in Belfast, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern unexpectedly brought a fresh rabbit out of the hat. Speaking shortly before midnight following more than 30 hours of negotiations with Northern Ireland's political parties, the two leaders said all sides had agreed to consider a May 22 'target date' for resuming power-sharing.

May 22 is the second anniversary of the Good Friday peace accord's overwhelming ratification in public referendums. The historic pact also made that date the deadline for Northern Ireland's rival paramilitary groups to be totally disarmed, an unfulfilled goal that, before yesterday's IRA statement that it was ready to put its weapons verifiably 'beyond use', had repeatedly stymied wider political progress.

A linchpin of the Prime Ministers' new plan is to extend that deadline for total disarmament to June 2001. It is a concession that could still fuel Protestant opposition to the proposal.

It also promised a lower level of security, a radically changed policing service and new human rights provisions.

Mr Adams quickly recognised the new plan offered the chance of a breakthrough, calling its unveiling 'a very decisive moment'.

Ever since Northern Ireland's peace process gathered pace in 1993, Britain and the province's Protestant majority have demanded gradual IRA disarmament as the price for including the guerillas' political wing, Sinn Fein, in Northern Ireland's administration.

But the IRA, though observing a ceasefire since 1997, had until yesterday steadfastly refused to give any disarmament commitments. It withdrew from negotiations with the province's disarmament commission in February after Britain resumed direct rule of Northern Ireland.

Mr Trimble, who had led the short-lived coalition, said before Friday's dramatic announcement that he would be willing to resume work alongside Sinn Fein if the IRA gave a firm commitment to disarm.

That pledge almost led to his defeat in an election for the leadership of the Ulster Unionists. His narrow victory left him exposed to Protestant critics both inside and outside his party.

These critics - representing nearly half of Protestant opinion - have long demanded that the IRA totally disarm and disband before Sinn Fein could gain a slice of power.

Speaking yesterday for the hardline Unionist strand outside Mr Trimble's party, firebrand Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley said in response to the IRA statement: 'I don't trust IRA murderers. I don't care what they say.' Agencies