Irish Republican News · October 17, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Five days left for deal - Ahern

Talks are continuing in Belfast and Brussels after the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, declared Wednesday as the effective deadline for the announcement of a deal to end the stalemate over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

With Mr Ahern and British Prime Minister engaged in a series of discussions over the weekend at a European conference in Brussels, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams is continuing his discussions with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Few details of the negotiations have yet emerged, however, but hopes are still high of a historic breakthrough.

In their Joint Declaration last April, the governments called for a ``full and permanent'' cessation of all paramilitary activity and an ``historic act of completion'' that would put all paramilitary weapons beyond use.

The UUP is demanding a historic move by the IRA in exchange for their support of the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing institutions in the North of Ireland, now suspended for over a year.

Three hardline Ulster Unionist MPs have recently insisted that the IRA must disarm completely and disband. They have also resolutely rejected the Joint Declaration amid a new dispute over their position in the party and party policy.

Following a bitter exchange of statements between the three and the UUP leadership, Mr Adams declined to comment on that party's internal difficulties.

``They have a leadership and we will deal with them. That is the reality of it,'' he said. ``The people we are working with we think have the will to try and sort these issues out.''

Mr Adams said they were working on the basis that elections to the Belfast Assembly were going to go ahead, deal or no deal. However, he said it was better to go into elections with an agreement.

He cautioned rejectionist unionists within the DUP and UUP and said that ``for unionists this is as good as it gets, folks.''

``The Good Friday Agreement was a considerable compromise. Those who stayed outside the room and didn't negotiate can hardly complain about it.''

He said ``rejectionist unionists need to catch up with the people,'' adding that ``the popular will is for this to work''.

Optimism has continued in the media despite the failure this week to meet a deadline for an election on 13 November, which had been the preferred date.

The appearance of election posters for Mr Adams in west Belfast confirms the conviction that, whatever about a breakthrough in the round of talks, there will be Assembly elections.

Many republicans, however, remember a painful and humiliating experience earlier this year, when similar negotiations collapsed in chaos. Intensive efforts to reach a compromise on a form of words between the IRA and the Ulster Unionist leadership fell apart amid increasingly outrageous demands for statements by the IRA and Gerry Adams.

Despite the assiduously upbeat tone of recent comments, fears of another spectacular collapse -- possibly delaying any possible election until 2004 -- have not been allayed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was unconvincing when he said earlier in the week that the ``omens'' were ``good'' and the fact that unionists and republicans were ``still talking'' through the issues was itself ``a tremendous achievement''.

He said in parliament on Wednesday that the elections should go ahead -- but again refused to name a date.

Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, remains more cautious. Speaking in Brussels yesterday, he publicly urged the British government to announce next week that elections will take place before the end of November, even in the absence of any agreement between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.

The Taoiseach, warned, however, that failure to find agreement by next Wednesday would place the pro-Agreement parties in an difficult position entering an election campaign. and would lead to ``an enormous period of uncertainty''.

``I do not think that would do the process any good,'' he said.

``I just think on the balance of it, it's very hard to tell people that you're heading for the sixth year since an election on what was a five-year mandate,'' he said.

He said that the two sides had just five days to agree, since both he and Mr Blair agreed that the end of November was the latest possible date for an election this year.

``When Tony Blair and I go home tomorrow, we're going to keep at it for the weekend. We've made up our minds to do that because it's our last weekend and we've only a few days left. Both of us feel that if we can't get it right by our Question Times on Wednesday, we're goosed,'' he said.

Sinn Fein chief negotiator Mr Martin McGuinness said he agreed with Ahern's assessment.

Mr McGuinness said Sinn Fein had been pressing hard for movement from the British government on the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast and the introduction of equality and human rights commitments in the Good Friday Agreement.

``Time is pressing'', he said, adding that all communities needed to hold their nerve over the coming days.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News