The possible deal is being worked on in intensive behind-the-scenes talks involving Sinn Fein, London and the Ulster Unionists over the next week, climaxing on Monday, March 3.
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern are due at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast on that date for open-ended talks to try to resolve outstanding issues. “Bring your sleeping bag” was one official’s advice to journalists.
Politicians and officials are locked in intensive negotiations in London, Belfast and Dublin, although everything hinges on whether the IRA will stop all training, targeting and weapons procurement, while undertaking some form of public decommissioning.
Sinn Fein sources are still playing their cards close to their vests, insisting they have yet to be convinced the British government will fulfill its promises. One spokesman said Blair was like a “used-car salesman who kept changing the price of a vehicle.”
Republicans have given the British a 58-page document detailing what it sees as the gaps in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said its talks with Britain had significantly intensified. “The timeframe is almost exhausted. Our focus is on securing a definitive plan for the implementation of the agreement.
“Our discussions have covered all of the key areas, from policing through justice issues, the transfer of power, demilitarization, equality and human rights matters, as well as the Irish language,” he said.
Martin McGuinness, the party’s chief negotiator, said last Friday there was effectively just a fortnight to save the agreement. He described the notion of IRA disbandment as “ridiculous,” and said Sinn Fein would not join the Policing Board until there was clear evidence of changes to its powers and authority.
McGuinness said getting the British to implement the agreement was proving more difficult than negotiating it. Talks with the British and Irish governments, often lasting until 5 in the morning, have delivered little progress to date, he added.
Speaking two days after what UUP leader David Trimble described as a “serious” engagement with the Sinn Fein leadership, McGuinness said Trimble should walk away from the process if he doesn’t want to fully implement the agreement. “It appears to me they don’t want a deal at this time,” McGuinness said of the UUP leadership.
British Northern Secretary Paul Murphy conceded that there were “very big issues and difficulties” to deal with. “But there always are,” he added, “and in terms of what we have had to overcome over the last number of years, I believe the will is there among all the pro-agreement parties and politicians.”
If any deal is reached, the UUP’s Trimble will have to gain the approval of his party’s ruling council. Republicans would have to vote on joining the Policing Board, probably at their ard fheis at the end of March.
A British government source said: “In many ways, we’re about 70 percent there. There are things Trimble doesn’t like, but he’ll go for it if the IRA does enough. Republicans seem engaged, but nobody knows for sure.”
If a deal is done, three or four border watchtowers could be dismantled within weeks and hundreds of British troops withdrawn within months. Blair also believes that devolving responsibility for policing and criminal justice to Northern Ireland could allow Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board.
The so-called “On-the-Runs,” most of republicans, would involve some judicial process, and freedom on license, but stop short of a full amnesty and would not force admissions of guilt, which republicans would not accept.