By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Politicians and diplomats are working around-the-clock at Stormont in what may be a last-ditch effort to save the Good Friday peace agreement. With the June 30 deadline looming for powers to be devolved from Westminster to the executive, the perennial stumbling block of paramilitary arms decommissioning is preventing Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists from setting up the power-sharing Executive.
The British government has set midnight Wednesday for agreement between the parties, although there were signs that this deadline could be stretched if progress appeared possible. Both governments said if the deadline was missed, they had no other plan.
Conflicting signals have come from all sides this week. The Irish and British governments remained optimistic that there would be a resolution, but John Taylor, the UUP deputy leader, said there was only a "2 percent chance" of that happening. Everyone fears that, in the absence of a deal, violence could spread to fill the political vacuum.
Sinn Fein sources said they believed a breakthrough is possible, but only if the Ulster Unionists shift position on their insistence that the IRA begin disarming before Sinn Fein’s leaders are allowed to take their seats. Unionists, however, said that isn’t going to happen. And with hardline unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson back on board, it seems the two parties may be on a collision course.
Meanwhile, there is no sign that the IRA is actively considering disarming. Republicans insist they are merely abided by the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which does not set forth a timetable for a weapons hand-over, and that unionists are using decommissioning as an excuse to resist change.
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Unionists claim that serious pressure is being exerted on Sinn Fein to agree to a timetable for IRA disarming, in return for the setting up of an Executive later this week. Sinn Fein has always resisted attempts to make it responsible for IRA actions.
The acceptance by republicans in Portlaoise jail of two remand prisoners onto their wing was seized on by unionists as "proof" that the IRA was still active. The two men, from Derry, were arrested in County Donegal, allegedly in possession of fertilizer, metal barrels and other material that could be used in making bombs.
Republican sources said too much was being read into the willingness of the prisoners to accept the men onto the wing, and that the IRA cease-fire remains "solid and intact."
In fact, Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, claimed during the week that the IRA is remaining disciplined in the face of provocation. "The fact is that they have done so in the light of 160 reported incidents of bomb attacks," he said.
"We want to see total disarmament and we will continue to pursue that. It is not dependent on or in any way locked into or linked to any other matter. It is a necessary part of the agreement and we will therefore fulfill our commitments in that regard.
"Unionists need to get real [and realize] that they will be cutting their noses off to spite their faces. If they don’t allow the devolution of power — does that mean the equality agenda is going to end? It doesn’t. Does that mean we are still not going to need a new policing service? It doesn’t.
"My view is that this can be sorted out. We are going into these talks to make it work if the political will is there. There is no reason why the political agreement can not be put back on the rails and the whole process moved forward."
Before he arrived in Belfast for the talks, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, revealed the formula he hopes will save the process and see the devolution of power to Belfast.
He wants Sinn Fein to guarantee a timetable that would see IRA decommissioning completed by next year, while the Ulster Unionists would sit in the executive, with Sinn Fein, before any actual arms hand-over.
Blair wants decommissioning, not as a precondition, but in accordance with, the timetable and ending in May 2000. In return for a Sinn Fein guarantee that this would result in deeds, he wants the Ulster Unionists to agree to the executive next week.
Nobody, he said, was remotely suggesting the unionists have to be content with words only. Decommissioning was a requirement, not an option, but already a Sinn Fein source said Blair’s formula goes beyond the scope of the Agreement — while the Ulster Unionists are also wary.
As with any compromise, the risk is that it’s equally unacceptable to both sides, although Blair says the North is staring into the abyss and that people would "neither understand nor forgive" failure.
On Friday, Donaldson rejected Blair’s proposals, saying he ought to "get real" rather than ask unionists to "share power with terrorists."
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, also warned Blair that people were losing faith in him. In an article in the London Times, Trimble urged Mr. Blair not to "cave in to guerrilla groups" as a way of getting the peace process moving again.
Trimble said it would be sad if the British prime minister "gives too much comfort to those who have not yet crossed the bridge from terrorism to democracy."
"There is no alternative to sticking to the right course," he said, emphasizing that he would not sit alongside Sinn Féin in a power-sharing executive in the North unless IRA decommissioning had taken place.
Trimble also blamed a "widespread lack of confidence" in Mo Mowlam as being one of the problems in implementing the Good Friday agreement. "One of the great difficulties we have had in implementing the agreement, has been the widespread lack of confidence, particularly among Ulster unionists, with regard to what the secretary of state will do," Trimble said.
Adams said that if this week’s negotiations at Stormont fail, unionists must understand it would mean the end of the Assembly. No deal on Wednesday should mean no Assembly on Thursday, he said.
The talks are the most important since partition, said Adams, and reducing the process to the "no guns, no government" slogan turns the agreement on its head. He said the future is too important to squander because elements of unionism want everything only on their own terms.
Seamus Mallon, the North’s deputy first minister, said Sinn Fein should now put "beyond doubt" that it believes decommissioning should happen. It is reasonable, he said, to ask why it has not been possible to start putting the IRA’s stockpiles of guns and explosives out of commission.
He believes that the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was right to say that decommissioning was not a precondition but its completion was still required by May 2000. Failure by Sinn Fein to discharge its obligations would lead to their loss of right to take part in the executive, he said.
Sinn Fein believes the Ulster Unionists are preparing their "exit strategy" and that they will increasingly lean on the SDLP to join them in excluding Sinn Fein from government if the deadline is missed.