By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the focus of continuing dialogue on the Northern Ireland peace process switches to the U.S. for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, a gloomy Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned that the current stalemate has left a dangerous vacuum. He said there was no "green light" for restoring the suspended institutions.
In a series of interviews at his party’s annual conference and in his keynote presidential address on Saturday, Ahern did not hide his disappointment.
"There has been quite a lot of talk and debate and contact, but to say that anything substantive is coming out of that dialogue is questionable," he said. "There is no basis yet for seeing a green light."
He said that without the power-sharing institutions being restored, decommissioning of paramilitary arms was going to be "very difficult, if not impossible, ever."
He did not expect any "major breakthrough" in the peace process until after St. Patrick’s Day and a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party on March 25 also has to be factored in.
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He told his party’s conference that if democracy is to flourish in the North, "all the armies must be stood down."
He said he understood the difficulties some people have with the idea of decommissioning arms and that it was unfortunate that more progress was not been made in sorting out the difficult arms issue and in demilitarizing areas of South Armagh.
The next day, however, Ahern denied his call for "all armies" to be stood down was making the IRA the equivalent of the British army.
"There is no question of anyone talking about equivalence," he said. "The British government have always stated that, as the paramilitary threat reduces, the military presence reduces. So they have put that on equal footing."
Ahern said politicians must continue to work toward a day when paramilitary organizations are dismantled and British army demilitarization occurred, including the removal of barracks, watchtowers, detention centers and foot patrols.
"All of these issues create absolute resentment in nationalist areas," he said.
Ahern said the only way forward was on the basis of agreement and consent while insisting on equality of rights.
"A few small groups still suffer from the lingering delusion that it is possible to bring about a forced unity (of Ireland)," he said. "Far more can be achieved by negotiation and cooperation than by dictat.
"Our work for peace and better relationships must go on. Temporary obstacles will be overcome, and progress will be resumed.
"Peace in Northern Ireland and a permanent transformation of relationships is the single thing that we most want to see in our lifetime."
The taoiseach also spoke of the danger of the current stalemate leading to missed opportunities.
"We have a difficult situation, an extremely difficult situation; it could drift away," Ahern said. "I don’t think the people want to see it drift away. They voted 96 percent for here [in the Republic] and 70 to 30 in the North."