Talks intensify for deal to restore peace process
Talks intensify for deal to restore peace process

The Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, meets the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, for talks today in the latest round of talks aimed at rescuing the peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the first anniversary of the collapse of the North's power-sharing looms next month, there is growing agreement that twice-cancelled elections to the Belfast Assembly election must go ahead before the end of the year.

But the election -- which could see Sinn Fein overtake the rival nationalist SDLP and claim at least the powerful position of Deputy First Minister in the North's devolved administration -- is increasingly being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations and not a democratic requirement.

Talks are also expected to be held among the pro-agreement parties in the North following those already held between Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Mr David Trimble at Stormont last week.

Mr Ahern met the British Prime Minister at Mr Blair's country retreat in England on Saturday. The two premiers met for some two hours with officials before they held private talks on the way ahead for the stalled political process.

Mr Ahern indicated yesterday the two heads of government had agreed on what they would like to achieve and how it could be done.

``We want to have an election this side of Christmas,'' Mr Ahern said. ``We want to have the prospect that the election would give us an executive, a power-sharing executive, and we want to see that they will implement a programme for government that will give stability in Northern Ireland and not have the stop-start crises, mini crises and major crises that we have continued to have.''

However, there were strong suggestions that an election would only be permitted if it produced the right result for a smooth return to power-sharing government.

The British Prime Minister, Mr Blair's official spokesman spoke afterwards of the need for ``successful elections''. He said there was ``a certain sense of momentum'', but detailed negotiation over a possible deal on ``acts of completion'' -- meaning fresh concessions by the IRA -- were still to come.

Unionists have insisted that if the assembly is to be restored and elections are to go ahead in November, the IRA must effectively disband.

Despite the obvious difficulties, it is understood that the British government will not allow the election to proceed unless there is a deal involving the IRA and the Ulster Unionist Party which will win the UUP's renewed support for power-sharing.

On Friday, a meeting of the UUP officer board shelved disciplinary proceedings against three hardline anti-Agreement Members of Parliament. The move came as little surprise after a motion on the matter was not taken to a vote at a meeting of the party's ruling council earlier this month.

It is understood the 100-strong executive instead discussed strategy for the upcoming negotiations and for diluting the two governments' Joint Declaration, a plan to implement outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

A decision could come in the next few weeks if elections are to be go ahead before the Christmas break.

Mr McGuinness said setting of a date for the poll would create ``a new dynamic'' in the process and that it was a ``matter of political principle''.

``There is a growing view that British Prime Minister Tony Blair's position on elections is untenable. If he were to cancel elections again, like he did in May, it would be disastrous.''

Speaking after a meeting of Sinn Fein leaders in Dublin, Mr McGuinness said: ``I think it is absolutely vital that the British prime minister listens to what both Sinn Fein and the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) have been saying about how crucially important it is for us to have these Assembly elections this autumn.

``At the meeting, there was an awful lot of anger and frustration expressed at the behaviour of the British government and the slow rate of progress.''

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© 2003 Irish Republican News