'Things have changed' - Ahern
'Things have changed' - Ahern

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that current negotiations in Dublin and London are not a continuation of the process which dramatically collapsed last October.

"There are different dynamics, different issues, different agendas and different policy documents now. The format for negotiations is different," he told the 26-County parliament in Dublin.

Mr Ahern was commenting on the outcome of discussions in Dublin with British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month and reduced IRA activity.

The Taoiseach was also questioned on last year's failed deal on the implementation of the 198 Good Friday Agreement, which collapsed when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble expressed dissatisfaction with an act of IRA weapons decommisioning.

This included the release of four republicans from Castlerea prison, the only qualifying prisoners not to be released under the terms of the Agreement.

He said: "If we had got total completion of the deal, we would have honoured it. Unfortunately, we did not get near that position as a number of things went wrong. Now the structures have changed, the parties have changed and we are into a different set of negotiations. It is not the same, and not a question that everything from last year moves into this year."

He added: "Obviously, the IRA still exist, they still recruit and they still do some training. But compared to where we were a year or two ago, the position de-escalates."

Looking forward to progress by the autumn, he said current unionist violence highlighted the need "for another peaceful summer".

The issue of the release of the Castlerea 4 would have to be considered in the context of a final settlement in the North, the Taoiseach said. He said he expected that, at the end of the negotiations, the issue would be completed and dealt with.

"One of the original five was released and, obviously, others will be in prison for up to another five years. I know it is difficult for the families, but if we are to get an end to paramilitarism and violence and to work towards a constructive beginning, we must deal with this issue.

"Quite frankly, we must deal with this issue as part of the end game. It is not something to give away or trade off, but in the end this is where we would come to ultimately. I have made this clear to the Garda representative bodies."

Asked by the Labour leader, Mr Pat Rabbitte, if recent remarks by the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, indicated a change in his government's assessment of the Provisional Republican Movement, Mr Ahern said his Government had been assessing the movement.

"I may be wrong, but I think even since last October, people are facing up to moving towards the end position. That will come to fruition only when matters are completed.

"The issues in the Joint Declaration, such as equality, policing and so on are very difficult."

It was not easy for the Provisional movement when it was not engaged directly with the DUP in talks, he said. "It is difficult for the DUP because of the history of the situation, but I increasingly detect from both sides a willingness to try.

"It will not happen overnight or over the next few weeks, but there is a willingness to do this. That is the belief of Government."

Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain said that the Assembly had collapsed on a number of occasions, due to unilateral action on the part of the British government, with which the Dublin government was supposed to be an equal partner in overseeing the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

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