No talks progress seen before New Year
No talks progress seen before New Year

Intensive efforts to reach a deal in the northern peace proess will not resume until the New Year, it has emerged.

The Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Berte Ahern conceded this week that there is no sign of progress in the dispute over whether photographs of IRA decommissioning should be taken and published.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Mr Ahern said: “You are not going to get any change on it at the moment. Both sides are just dug in in their hard positions.

“There is not a glimmer of light.”

He said he continued to believe that a way forward could be found following the publication of government proposals for a comprehensive deal in the North. But he had asked all involved “to give the process some space” over the Christmas period.

The talks were seen to have suffered a blow earlier this week after Mr Ahern was seen to have backed down on the photographs issue following the threat of a talks boycott by Ian Paisley, leader of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party.

Following media speculation that the Provisional IRA could proceed to disarm in the absence of any fresh agreement, Mr Paisley warned that such a would have “very serious consequences” for the peace process unless photographs were taken.

He warned his party could boycott efforts to restore the Belfast power-sharing Assembly if the IRA simply went ahead and disarmed.

Sinn Féin expressed exasperation at the remarks, which it described as “an ultimatum to the IRA not to decommission”.

Although a number of methods to verify IRA disarming have been proposed, Mr Paisley has insisted on a complete photographic record of the event. He has controversially linked this demand to a call for the “humiliation” of the IRA, a group he said had sinned in public and needed to “repent in public”.

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said that the DUP’s continuing refusal to accept the IRA’s peace offer could not be allowed to paralyse the process of change set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

“If that means moving on then there is a responsibility on the two governments to do so,” he said.

“Sinn Féin want the DUP to be part of the peace process; we want the door to be kept open for them, but we cannot wait while they come to terms with the political realties of the 21st century. The process of change must continue.”

Mr Kelly said the IRA, in its statement last week, had set out clearly its willingness to deal with concerns within unionism, including the issues of arms and activities, in the context of a comprehensive deal.

“We now have Ian Paisley saying that he does not want the IRA to deal with the issues of arms and activities conclusively - unless they do so exclusively on his terms and in a way which involves an unachievable process of humiliation.

“After years of claiming that the issue of arms was at the top of the agenda for unionism, Ian Paisley is now demanding, bizarrely, that the IRA do not deal with the issue of their weapons.”

Talks between Irish and British Government officials and the parties went ahead at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast on Wednesday.

Mr Paisley’s party called off a talks boycott of the 26-County government after Mr Ahern told the Dublin parliament earlier on Wednesday that government proposals on the publication of photographs of IRA decommissioning were “fair and reasonable”.

This marked a change of tack from Monday, when Mr Ahern said the idea of publishing photographs was “not workable” -- a comment which was portrayed as a “gaffe” by Dublin officials.

In a wide-ranging statement on the peace process, Mr Ahern told the Dail he understood the issue would be “difficult” for republicans, but believed it would have been considered by them as part of the comprehensive plan outlined by Dublin and London.

Mr Ahern also insisted the IRA go further to make a statement in relation to the ending of alleged criminality.

“We have always been clear, and it was commonly understood throughout this entire period of engagement, that the ending of all paramilitary activity must also encompass all other illegal activity,” Mr Ahern said.

“The IRA statement on Thursday, while confirming their intentions in relation to that organisation moving to a new mode, issuing instructions to volunteers and completing decommissioning to a rapid time-scale, did not address this issue in the clear terms required by the Government.

“Clarification is required that the IRA’s commitment is indeed, to a complete ending of paramilitarism and other illegal activity,” the Taoiseach added.

Mr Ahern has also held meetings on the impasse with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the margins of an EU summit in Brussels on Friday.

In an apparent reference to nationalist concerns that some of the changes proposed undermined the Good Friday Agreement, he said the two governments would be “as helpful as we can in responding to those concerns, mindful of the need to preserve the overall balance of the package”.

Mr Ahern said he was concerned that the exchanges of the past 10 days could have the effect of unravelling the proposed agreement. But he hoped the chance of agreement had not been postponed until after a British general election, expected in May.

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