By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists cautioned against optimism as they arrived in England for intensive talks to resolve the continuing crisis caused by the resignation of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as Northern Ireland’s first minister.
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, met former President Bill Clinton at Chequers on Monday morning before traveling to a secluded conference center in the British Midlands to start negotiations away from press attention.
Clinton was in England for another engagement and is said to be playing no major role in the talks, although a Downing Street spokesman said he might "make the odd call."
Blair and Ahern hope seclusion from the press, and the tense loyalist marching season, will help broker a deal on demilitarization and police reform, which has not moved far enough or fast enough for republicans, in return for movement on IRA weapons decommissioning.
"The main constitutional issues have been settled," Blair said Monday. "We have an executive, there is an assembly, North-South bodies that certainly can and should function well, and real progress toward equality and fair treatment for everyone."
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He said there remains a deep sense of obligation "to crack the remaining issues," which, he noted, is what the people of Northern Ireland are demanding of their political representatives.
Said Ahern, "Over these next few days, if we work together and everybody puts in the sincere efforts they did three and a half years ago when we negotiated the agreement, I believe there can be a successful conclusion on it."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the peace process was in "considerable" difficulty.
"The process has become lost and it has to be put back on the right road and that’s certainly our intention in coming here," he said Sunday in Belfast during a commemoration for 1991 IRA hunger striker Joe McDonnell
Adams said he believes there is no possibility of unionist demands on IRA weapons being met.
"The IRA are not sheep," he said. "It is not possible and it is not the responsibility of the Sinn Fein leadership to deliver the IRA on British or Unionist terms."
Speaking on Saturday, Trimble also held out little hope of a breakthrough at the talks. "I have had discussions with these gentlemen [in Sinn Fein] before," he said. "I have listened to them saying about the great things they’ll do and I have seen the little that comes from it.
"The simple fact of the matter is that absolutely nothing has happened. Other things have been implemented — in fact, they have been over-implemented — and there are areas that in the course of implementation the agreement has been broken.
"There is no excuse for the republicans — they haven’t even started, and other people have been working hard and made a considerable effort while they have done very little."
Trimble said that promises were no longer enough, that weapons had to be actually put beyond use. But there is no indication the IRA will make a move in time to allow him to be reelected by Aug. 12, the effective deadline.
Sinn Fein said the onus is on the British government to honor its promises on security scale-down and policing. A British source said: "We’re not overly hopeful. It’s technically possible but no one is promising magic."