Irish Republican News · September 17, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]

Huge press interest surrounds intensive talks at Leeds Castle in Kent in southern England, where the prospects of a deal between Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley is the increasing subject of rumour and speculation.

As the talks wound down tonight, there were suggestions that at least a partial deal could yet be put together which would avoid the highly damaging appearance of failure at the scheduled end of talks tomorrow. The deal could involve the IRA’s biggest move yet to disarm, according to some reports.

Before the talks started, Sinn Féin accused the two governments of not sufficiently preparing the ground for this weekend’s talks showdown. However, several parties to the talks process reported that it had suddenly intensified today.

While many still doubt that agreement between the republican moderates and unionist hardliners can be achieved, others have remained adamant that a breakthrough can emerge and that the long suspended Belfast Assembly could be given new life.

Ten years have passed since the original ceasefire by the Provisional IRA, and it is six and a half years since the historic Good Friday peace agreement was signed.

That agreement remains unimplemented as the Dublin and London governments have stalled and resiled in the face of unionist opposition. Unionist intransigence has centred mainly on allegations of continuing IRA activity.

The picturesque moated Leeds Castle is the current venue for a series of high-profile talks since 1998, none of which have broken implacable unionist opposition to the process of change in the North of Ireland.

However, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said today his party was “voyaging forward in hope”.

Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin insisted today that “the deal could be done” with Paisley’s DUP. His party was ready to make that deal, but he said he could not report that the DUP had ended its notorious refusal to engage in direct talks with republicans.

“We will not be found wanting if the DUP are ready to discuss. Our view for some time is we will do business with the DUP, representing in our view a more cohesive unionism,” he said

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, once the central unionist figure in the talks, indicated that progress could be blocked by divisions in the rival DUP which he said were now “painfully obvious”. The DUP, now the dominant unionist party, has denied any divisions.

Mr Trimble also called on the IRA to make a detailed statement on weapons without delay.

He said: “There have been rumours that the spokesman of that private army, one P O’Neill, may be about to say something. In which case, the sooner we hear it, and the clearer the message, the better,” he said.

British officials also served to fuel rumours of an IRA declaration.

“P O’Neill writes his own (statements). I’m not going to get involved in any speculation at all,” said a spokesperson for the British Prime Minister.

“There will be all sorts of rumours and all sorts of speculation. Going on the optimism-pessimism rollercoaster just makes you dizzy. Let’s just wait and see.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern have both expressed a determination that he current talks mark a “decision time” to end a political vacuum created by the collapse of the power-sharing institutions two years ago.

Speculation that the Provisional IRA could make a statement on further arms decommissioning -- and that it could even agree to end all activities as part of a comprehensive deal -- have duelled with bitter cynicism among the assembled media.

Some reporters claimed that the two Prime Ministers had planned to make the DUP an offer they “couldn’t refuse” if they agreed to a return of the Stormont Assembly. However, a huge gap clearly remains between the demands of Ian Paisley and speculation of republican concessions.

Peter Robinson, Paisley’s dapper deputy, spoke of movement on some of the significant issues dividing the parties, but was more sanguine about the prospects of success. There was no imminent agreement, he said this afternoon.

“Progress has been made in some areas. There are other areas where there has been no progress whatsoever,” he said. 

“I’m not indicating how much progress we are making in any specific areas,” Mr Robinson added.

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, said his party was as anxious as the two Prime Ministers to complete a deal, but one that would see the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented.

“We want to do business with Ian Paisley. We would be quite pleased to vote for Ian Paisley as First Minister, but in the context of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

Mr Adams said he would not countenance any DUP “hollowing out” of the Agreement but would accept sensible modifications of it.

Ian Paisley, who has been stridently opposed to any compromise with republicans, is said to remain “very sceptical” about Sinn Féin’s intentions.

However, he emerged from the first day of the Leeds Castle talks proclaiming his commitment to secure “the best possible, fairest deal for all people in Northern Ireland”.

The DUP leader also attacked “the treachery, betrayals and concessions” of his unionist opponents.


Pressure will grow tomorrow as the talks participants face the prospect of failure, a further loss of credibility for the process and a threatened but unspecified “alternative” mooted by Tony Blair.

But Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty said during a break in talks for media interviews that politics wouldn’t “stop on Saturday” if there was no deal.

“We’re not here to surrender the terms of the Good Friday Agreement,” he declared.

However, DUP opposite Gregory Campbell said his party was seeking “a better deal” which would see the IRA “out of business” and their arms “totally and utterly decommissioned”.

“If they don’t get rid of the guns, there will be no progress,” he insisted.

The talks will continue at least until lunchtime Saturday, when a wedding is scheduled to take place at the talks venue.

* Willie Frazer, director of the anti-republican FAIR lobby group, was arrested today after refusing to leave the media centre near Leeds Castle. The hardline unionist had resisted attempts by staff at the Ramada Hotel to get him off the premises.

Mr Frazer was angered by what he viewed as special treatment for Sinn Féin representatives using the facilities and shouted angry denunciations of the “provos” as he was led away.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News