Adams seeks `inclusive' united Ireland
A dramatic political breakthrough in the North could be imminent as Sinn Féin and representatives of the Irish and British governments are engaged in a series of meetings this weekend.
Movement towards a date for fresh elections to the suspended Belfast Assembly in November has been fuelled by positive meetings in recent days between the key players in the peace process.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams met Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble twice last week. This follows meetings between Sinn Féin and the two governments.
A deal would likely involve the announcement of an election date, a guarantee that the Assembly will not be collapsed again, demilitarisation by the British government, and an IRA move on arms.
Progress on outstanding elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, including policing reform and the status of paramilitaries `on the run' from prosecutions are also expected to form part of the deal.
The details, including the `choreography', or timing of the sequence of events, and the substance of various statements or announcements, will be the contentious elements for the talks over the next two weeks.
One factor behind the urgency is the approach of an unofficial deadline -- the first anniversary next month of the collapse of the Assembly and power-sharing administration at Stormont.
The yawning political vacuum has allowed a resurgence in unionist paramilitary violence in recent weeks. The weekend saw two devices laft at Catholic schools in north Belfast and Larne, while a couple and their two children, a two-week-old baby and a four- year-old girl, escaped injury in a petrol bomb attack in County Antrim on Saturday.
Meanwhile, dissident republicans have continud to extend their threats against members of new community policing boards across the Six Counties.
But many analysts also believe that David Trimble is now in a stronger position to agree on a return to government. His victory at the Ulster Unionist council meeting earlier this month, which saw support for his call on three dissident members of the party to abide by party policy, is being seen by some as significant.
``The only way I can work with David Trimble is to accept his word. Whatever happens after that is a matter for the UUP,'' said Adams.
``Trimble has clearly been emboldened by what was a considerable achievement at the Ulster Unionist council meeting. There is a need to use that as a springboard before his opponents get a chance to regroup.''
However, Adams stressed that unionists needed to be told that the Good Friday Agreement was ``as good as it gets.''
``The price for agreement is all-Ireland political bodies and a power-sharing structure. There is no other way forward,'' he said.
He said that Sinn Féin was ``singularly focused'' on getting an election date, and that problems surrounding demilitarisation, policing, human rights legislation and the International Monitoring Commission would need to be addressed in the coming weeks.
``We are back to the old standards. They need to be resolved as soon as possible,'' he said.
But he said that he was ready to work with Trimble towards the restoration of the institutions in the North, describing recent meetings as useful.
``We need an election in the North as soon as possible,'' Adams said.
``If Tony Blair were to cancel the elections again it would leave the political process completely and absolutely without credibility.
``Nationalists and republicans have quite limited confidence in the current British government.
``Whatever confidence exists at present would disappear if the elections were to be postponed again.''
IRISH-AMERICAN PUSH FOR ELECTIONS
Meanwhile, intensive lobbying of American congressmen by Irish-American groups is expected to result in calls by several US states for a restoration of the Northern electoral process.
The Massachusetts State Senate has already passed a resolution calling on British prime minister Tony Blair to set an election date in the autumn. Maine and Connecticut are expected to introduce similar bills in the coming weeks.
This follows lobbying by Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish American Unity Conference.
Republicans believe that Blair risks incurring the wrath of the international community if he fails to call elections.
They claim the British prime minister would find himself in an untenable situation if he were to allow the political vacuum to continue indefinitely.
It is thought that he may be finally prepared to concede elections amid reported tension between Mr Blair and the `securocrats' in the British military over the handling of intelligence matters and the Iraq invasion.
The Labour government has seen a sharp decline in support following a public inquiry into the promotion of misleading intelligence information on Iraq.
Blair may now be looking to Ireland as a means of shoring up his image as a peacemaker.
But the Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said more work is necessary before an election date can be set.
``We want elections and we want to try to achieve a working executive out of those elections,'' he said.
``Everybody knows what is required but there is no package agreed at this stage, or even tentatively agreed.''
Mark Durkan, of the nationalist SDLP, has called on the British ghovernment to set an election date and go ahead with the poll regardless of whether political progress is achieved.
NEW POLITICAL DISPENSATION NEEDED - ADAMS
On Tuesday, Sinn Féin is holding a party conference on `Building for Irish re-unification', as well as a meeting of its electoral strategy group.
Speaking ahead of these meetings, Mr Adams spoke of the need for a new political dispensation on the island of Ireland and a new relationship between Ireland and Britain.
``Sinn Féin's focus has been to see the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented. Our approach is far-sighted and strategic. Our republicanism is about change - fundamental, deep-rooted change. It's about empowering people to make that change.
``Our vision is inclusive. We are committed to establishing an entirely new, democratic and harmonious future with our unionist neighbours. And we have still a lot to learn about the unionist viewpoint, about their concerns, fears and aspirations. One of the failures thus far of this process is that there has not been intelligent and pro active listening by all sides.
``We have to show unionists that Sinn Féin - that Irish republicanism - is a fundamental part of their future. That together we can build a future of equals on this island that empowers, protects and enriches everyone.
``There will be a united Ireland. And our task, and that of all sensible Irish political leaders, should be to prepare for reunification.
``This is a challenge not just for Sinn Féin and republicans and nationalists but also for the unionist community and leadership of Unionism.''