By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — As the taoiseach and British prime minister were involved in intensive efforts to save the Good Friday peace agreement, reports were emerging Tuesday that several possible scenarios were being discussed that could, at the very least, keep the Northern Ireland peace process alive a while longer.
One, floated Tuesday by one news organization, would have Sinn Fein taking its seats in the power-sharing Executive in exchange for IRA arms decommissioning to begin taking place in a matter of weeks. The report said that if the IRA failed to do so, Sinn Fein would be expelled from the Executive. The deal was said to have the backing of SDLP leader John Hume. Unionists leaders, however, denied Tuesday that any such deal had been reached or, in fact, was even possible.
Another less optimistic scenario, offered by British and Irish government sources, was the creation of a shadow Executive, which, while it would not wield power, would at least keep the peace process on track while the arms decommissioning problem is addressed.
There were also rumors of a solution being imposed by the British.
While Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair met Tuesday with the various political parties, it was hoped that General John de Chastelain, the Canadian chair of the Decommissioning Commission, would issue a firm statement that he believed Sinn Fein was cooperating with him in planning a course for IRA disarmament.
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Then could follow the IRA’s traditional Easter statement, which might go closer toward saying its war was over than it ever has before while stopping short of committing itself to actual disarmament.
It’s understood, however, that the IRA would only issue such a statement if the Sinn Fein leadership were privately assured that it would result in reciprocal action from the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.
Several sources close to the negotiations were less than sanguine that, in the end, the two prime ministers would be able to coax a deal out of participants. Indeed, republican sources are still insisting they cannot deliver IRA decommissioning.
Stormont was awash with rumors last week that Trimble will resign if the Northern secretary, Mo Mowlam, triggers the setting up of the Executive without an agreement from the IRA for prior decommissioning.
There were astonishing scenes at Stormont on Tuesday with hardline unionists interrupting a press conference given in the Great Hall as Breandan Mac Cionnaith of the Garvaghy Road residents, was speaking to reporters about his meeting with Blair and Ahern.
Outside, two republicans climbed onto the statue of Lord Edward Carson and unfurled a banner and an Irish tri-color. They were quickly surrounded by the Rev. Ian Paisley and about 20 members of his party who shouted insults at them for more than half an hour.
Eventually, the RUC found a ladder long enough to scale the statue and the two republicans voluntarily climbed down and were taken away in a police car. The DUP insisted the two men be charged. They had blocked roads to and from the statue until the RUC moved in.
Speaking in Belfast as he arrived for talks, Blair said a new government in the North could only work if it was genuinely inclusive — a gesture toward Sinn Fein. But, he said, there was a dispute between the parties preventing this that went to the heart of the agreement. Without trust, he said, the agreement wouldn’t work.
Gerry Adams said there was a collective responsibility on everyone to ensure the agreement was implemented. He said there was going to be what he called a "democratic peace settlement" and that should happen now, before another Rosemary Nelson is killed.
On the question of decommissioning, he said there was a huge number of issues remaining to be settled, including judicial reform and policing while the decommissioning question was still being dealt with by the Independent Commission.
The deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, said he believed it would be possible to break the impasse. The people of Ireland would not tolerate the collapse of the agreement, he said. Once the parties reached agreement, there had to be clarity on how decommissioning would take place so it would not become a running sore.
Northern Secretary Mowlam said it would be a crime if the parties at Stormont failed to resolve their differences. She said she hoped the problem could be sorted out in time to call a meeting of the assembly on Wednesday or Thursday.
In a particularly bitter personal attack on Trimble, Peter Robinson of the DUP accused him of being a "Provo accomplice" in achieving for the IRA what bombs and bullets could never have done.
He accused Trimble and the UUP of setting up "an embryo united Ireland" and that the framework was in place to gradually transfer powers to an all-Ireland apparatus.
The process will be by drip-feed, he said, but it will be as certain and sustained as it is gradual and disguised.
The "unseemly spectacle" at Stormont was the vindication of the "No" campaign, said Robinson, accusing Trimble of being "like a performing magician in a seedy burlesque show" in trying to deflect the eye of his audience
Meanwhile, the SDLP leader, John Hume, has announced he has donated his Nobel peace prize money to a cross-community selection of charities. The bulk of the money — amounting to over a quarter of a million pounds — goes to the Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.