BELFAST — Sinn Féin says the Good Friday peace agreement is now in a "free fall," a claim disputed by the British and Irish governments, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. A new round of meetings in London on Monday yielded no progress toward breaking the decommissioning stalemate. Talks were scheduled to resume next week.
The latest round of meetings took place Monday during a five-hour stretch at the official residence of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, at No. 10 Downing Street. The meetings were jointly chaired by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
With no progress reported at the end of the talks, Ahern said all sides wanted progress but for that to happen, all must compromise. "If everybody holds their present position," he said, "there’s no possibility of us concluding in the near future."
Seamus Mallon of the SDLP said the agreement was the property of the people of Ireland and thus no political party had the right to wreck it. "Our political party and the people of the North and South of Ireland have no intentions of allowing this agreement to go by default," he said.
As he arrived for his meeting, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, appealed to loyalists paramilitaries to recommit themselves to simultaneously disarming alongside the IRA. He said if they made this clear, it would bring even greater pressure on republicans to begin decommissioning.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the critical point in the process had been when the two governments sided with the UUP and agreed in the Hillsborough Declaration that the production of IRA weapons was a precondition to Sinn Féin’s place on the power-sharing executive.
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Prior to that, he said, the agreement made no such precondition. "They have moved from the common ground of the agreement into the narrow ground of the Declaration shared by the Ulster Unionists," he said.
Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Féin said that his party was in London to rescue the agreement, and if the political institutions agreed a year ago had been put in place, the process would be in far better shape.
McLaughlin said the British and Irish governments must fulfill their obligations under the agreement. "My message to the two governments is they must take the lead or the credibility of the Good Friday agreement will steadily be eroded," he said.
It would, he said, be the "height of irresponsibility" for the two governments to put the agreement on ice for the summer. Both governments said they would not be doing that, but one official admitted they were in effect "running on the spot."
Trimble denied the peace process was in a free fall, saying people wanted the agreement to work — and it would work — when republicans faced up to their commitments. He insisted he is still optimistic, although republicans claimed this was only to portray himself as the great defender of the agreement.
Last week, the focus at Stormont eventually moved away from the draft Hillsborough Declaration, agreed by the two governments, and back onto the Good Friday agreement itself. Both Sinn Féin and the PUP have rejected the document, although the Ulster Unionists said it could be the basis for discussion.
On Wednesday, Sinn Féin challenged the British government to announce whether it still stood by the terms of the Good Friday agreement or by the very different terms, as it claims, of the Hillsborough Declaration.
The two parties who most supported the idea of the Hillsborough Declaration — with its collective act of reconciliation linked to decommissioning — were the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition. On Wednesday, even they appeared to concede it’s a dead duck.
The Women’s Coalition said it had been conned by the two governments, claiming it had not been given the final wording until it had ended its talks with the two prime ministers on April 1.
The deputy leader of the Alliance Party, Seamus Close, said the wording of the Hillsborough Declaration had created the potential for the Good Friday agreement to unravel from both ends.
On April 13, as he arrived for talks, McLaughlin said that to avoid confusion and uncertainty — after Dublin sources said his party had not specifically rejected the Hillsborough Declaration — he wanted to make it clear Sinn Fein had formally rejected it.
British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam said if people were only prepared to fight their own corner, then nothing the taoiseach or Tony Blair could do would help. She reminded people of the alternative, pointing to horrors of Kosovo.
In a closely argued article written for the Irish News in Belfast on Monday, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin said the survival of the Good Friday agreement was threatened by the UUP’s blatant breach of its obligations by making a demand Sinn Féin simply cannot deliver.
Renegotiating the agreement, he said, is unacceptable and has the potential to undo all the work of the last several years. All parties freely entered into a contract when they supported it and it had the full force of a democratic mandate. The process cannot be taken for granted, he said.
Meanwhile, anti-agreement unionists stepped up their campaign to get Sinn Féin ousted from the proposed executive. Cedric Wilson of the Northern Ireland Unionist Party said the main unionist parties should boycott the two governments’ talks until republicans were excluded.