By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — History will be made in Leinster House in Dublin this Thursday when Tony Blair becomes the first British prime minister to speak to both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is hoped Blair may use the occasion to launch an initiative to jump start the stalled peace process.
Although there’s little sign yet of what that initiative might be, Blair could announce significant progress on the North-South All-Ireland ministerial council, which nationalists see as the engine for cross-border development.
He may also unveil how the British-Irish Council –linking Dublin, Belfast, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh –would shape up. Unionists see this body as their guarantee of closer links with Britain.
But above all, there’s hope Blair may make a major announcement on the decommissioning issue, which is holding up the creation of the power-sharing executive at Stormont. No further meetings of the Assembly are planned before Christmas.
Unionists are refusing to countenance Sinn Féin taking its two seats on the executive before IRA decommissioning. The IRA has so far been adamant in saying it will not decommission "either through the back or front door."
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Although progress was reported being made during a meeting last Friday between the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Trimble has made it clear he will not agree to any cross-border bodies that blur the North’s separate identity.
The UUP leader said the North’s identity could not be submerged in a new all-Ireland identity. It would be unreasonable, he said, if its separate existence were to be significantly undermined by a series of institutions.
He predicted the British-Irish council would become more important than the cross border bodies. Cross-border cooperation would only be possible, he said, if there were demonstrable advantages and if the North’s ability to develop a competitive economy was not impaired.
It’s understood Blair will meet Trimble, and the SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon (now, respectively, first and deputy first ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly) either before or just after he meets the taoiseach in Dublin.
A sign of the times is how little controversy Blair’s visit is causing. A visit by former Premier Margaret Thatcher would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Newspaper commentators in Dublin observed this signified a new "maturity" in Irish-British relations and provided evidence that the old quarrel had effectively been ended by the Good Friday peace agreement.
It’s believed Blair will visit Belfast in the immediate run-up to his Dublin trip, with hopes that a meeting with all the parties might just come up with a formula to get over the decommissioning obstacle.
Speculation that Blair would host a "Cool Britannia"-style showbiz reception at the British embassy in Dublin were being played down in favor of a "meet the people" event in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght.