The date was set when the taoiseach and the British prime minister met the parties individually for talks last Wednesday at Hillsborough Castle, outside Belfast, but which produced little evidence of forward movement.
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair met privately for an hour-long summit before beginning a round of meetings with the parties and pledging to meet again to finalize a possible deal.
The talks are aimed at salvaging the Stormont assembly and power-sharing executive, which was suspended last Oct. 14 when the Ulster Unionists threatened to pull out in a disagreement over alleged continuing IRA activity.
After the talks, Blair said: “We have set aside a time on March 3, by which time — after the discussions we’ve had — we hope we will be in a position to have a way forward agreed with the parties.”
Ahern said there had been a useful and constructive series of meetings. “Four months ago, the prime minister set out his speech on acts of completion, which I supported two days later,” he said.
“What we are engaged in is trying to bring full and faithful completion to the Good Friday agreement,” he said, adding that this meant the end of paramilitary activity and implementation of the equality agenda, changes to policing and other outstanding issues.
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said paramilitaries need “to deliver their part of the bargain.”
“We do have to get to the final chapter and we do have to be sure that paramilitarism is going to be dealt with,” he said. “The instability in the process over the last four and a half years has been an instability created by the activities of paramilitaries and by doubt and uncertainty as to the future position of paramilitaries.”
Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin said he was frustrated that the party had not seen enough detailed response to their concerns or an assurance that the assembly elections would go ahead in May.
“We would hope that the pace of engagement will intensify — it very much would need to,” he said. “There hadn’t been the focus or preparation that we feel the situation merited and we certainly didn’t get the type of detailed response that we felt we were entitled to.”
Referring to the loyalist feud, Blair said it was important that loyalism finds “a proper and true political voice” and that he hoped the government would be able to help. He announced a three million pound fund to be spent mainly in loyalist areas.
“Loyalism does also face a choice — a choice between trying to pursue a political path or a descent into gangsterism and criminality that does nothing at all for the reputation of anyone,” he said.
Republicans have called for major moves from the British government, including demilitarization, further steps on policing and reforms on human rights and equality issues.
In return, the government and unionists want IRA units to stand down, a declaration the war is over and public acts of decommissioning. The IRA has already said some of these demands are unrealizable.
Meanwhile, a senior Ulster Unionist said that complete IRA disarmament will not be enough to restore the power-sharing government. Tough sanctions would also have to be available against parties like Sinn Fein with links to paramilitary organizations, John Taylor said.
“Anyone who believes that further decommissioning by the IRA will bring about a restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland is ill-advised,” he said. “It is necessary to have not only decommissioning but real sanctions if those who decommission break the peace.”
Donaldson launches group
Meanwhile, a difficult situation for the Trimble was made worse by a new group, ostensibly campaigning for unionist unity but in reality appearing more like another hardline attempt to limit his room for maneuver.
At the Belfast launch of six self-styled “Stormont Principles” for unionist unity, the anti-Agreement UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said unionists of all backgrounds would be foolish to ignore the demand for a common strategy.
The group he supports, however, had failed to seek Trimble’s prior endorsement, a strange way to go about seeking a broad front and unity within unionism. The DUP responded by accusing the UUP of electoral cynicism.
Among those who endorsed the new group were the former UUP leader James Molyneaux, now regarded as being in the anti-agreement camp, and a former assistant chief constable of the RUC, Blair Wallace.
Donaldson denied that he had failed to secure Trimble’s support, saying that the party leader had been invited to attend its launch, like all unionist MPs. He also denied he was disappointed at the poor turnout of elected unionist representatives.
“There are many people who see the need for unionist unity and a vision for that unity that goes way beyond the next election,” he said. “It saddens me that unionists devote most of their energy and resources to fighting each other rather than promoting the unionist case, not just here but in Great Britain and elsewhere.
“I have no doubt that in the towns and villages and cities of Northern Ireland in the unionist community there is an overwhelming desire for people to see the unionist parties working together for unionist unity.”
UUP sources indicated that they believed the group was nothing more than another attempt to hog-tie Trimble into a hardline position should there be a potential deal to restore devolution and power-sharing.
The new group is supported by hardline pro-union British MPs in the Conservative Party, some of them members of the “Friends of the Union” lobby at Westminster.