Although all sides know that failure to reach a deal could result in a bitter election campaign next month, leading to a summer of instability and potential violence, and worsening relations between the parties, no alternative appears available.
The British government, despite its protestations to the contrary, may postpone the elections, fearing the Rev. Ian Paisley’s anti-agreement DUP could trounce David Trimble’s UUP, putting the whole process at risk.
The DUP said it will overtake the UUP in the elections and will demand a full renegotiation of the agreement, without any Sinn Fein involvement. The SDLP has said it will not take part in any such talks.
Sinn Fein maintained contacts with both the British and Irish governments over the Easter holidays in a last-ditch bid to persuade them to publish their joint proposals for implementing the Good Friday agreement — but more in hope than in confidence of a breakthrough.
Both the governments and the Ulster Unionists are blaming republicans for the impasse, saying the IRA failed to make its future intentions clear enough to persuade unionists to rejoin Sinn Fein in the power-sharing Executive.
Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have been shuttling between British and Irish officials and the UUP, trying to clarify the IRA’s so-far unpublished statement on its ceasefire, but without a breakthrough.
Both governments and the unionists said the IRA statement is ambiguous and it needs to say its “war is over” with more certainty. Adams and McGuinness said the statement is clear but have so far failed to persuade others.
Responding to Trimble’s claim that the IRA statement falls far short of what is required, Sinn Fein’s claim that the rights of nationalists cannot be dictated by unionists, the SDLP leader Mark Durkan, said: “People are sick, sore and tired of our process being held to ransom by Army Councils and Ulster Unionist Councils.
“Both the British and Irish governments are clear that the original IRA statement does not clearly and unambiguously commit to end all paramilitary activity. If efforts to break the logjam do not succeed, both governments should make clear what is in the Joint Declaration.
“The IRA statement should also be published,” Durkan added. “Then people can decide for themselves who is falling short. For too long in this process we have seen unionists hold back change. Now from what both governments say, it is the IRA that is holding back the rights of nationalists and the implementation of the agreement.”
The IRA’s Easter statement said it had demonstrated its commitment to creating a just and lasting peace through the maintenance of its cessation and through a number of significant initiatives. Sinn F?in chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said there would be no change to the IRA’s position.
The next battle looming is likely to be about whether the May 29 elections should go ahead at all. Unionists are expected to demand a postponement until the autumn. UUP leader David Trimble said the British government should not “sleepwalk into elections.”
Trimble said he was “appalled” at Sinn Fein claims that the current impasse was down to London’s failure to implement the agreement. “The failure is the failure of republicans,” he said. ” They knew what had to be done. What is being asked for isn’t anything new, it is what the agreement said — the complete disarmament of paramilitary groups.”
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, meanwhile, told the Fianna Fail 1916 commemoration in Dublin on Sunday that republicans must “complete the transition” to exclusively peaceful means as the issue would have to be addressed “sooner or later.”
Republicans, he said, need “to take a leading role” in reestablishing trust — they could no longer wait midway between peace and violence.
As the taoiseach was criticizing Sinn F?in, its president, Gerry Adams, in a 1916 commemoration speech in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, paid tribute to the Irish government, the taoiseach and senior Irish officials, who he said had persisted in the continuing negotiations when others were less resilient.