26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have announced that a new round of talks with the political parties will begin on February 6, to establish if progress is possible on the implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
However, further intransigent statements by DUP leader Ian Paisley this week cast a shadow over yesterday’s summit, which the two premiers had hoped would inject momentum into the stalled peace process.
The DUP continues to refuse to hold direct talks with Sinn Féin, despite the unilateral initiative by the Provisional IRA last July to disarm and cease activity.
The DUP has also insisted that inclusive power-sharing, including Sinn Féin, is “out of the question”. The party has said it will only share power with fellow unionists ajnd the moderate nationalist SDLP.
Sinn Féin has said watered-down political institutions, stripped of a cabinet-style executive, are unacceptable.
An official IMC report is expected next week to largely confirm that the Provisional IRA has ended its armed struggle. However, the DUP is sure to seize on any conditionality in the report as justification for its position. The report is also expected to include police briefings on other republican organisations and unionist paramilitary activity.
The premiers said it would be a “very decisive year” for the north, a statement greeted with open cynicism by members of the media attending the event.
Mr Ahern insisted next month’s intensive talks would create a fresh momentum.
“This is not a time for sitting back or complacency. We cannot afford a prolonged stalemate,” he said.
“...We’re not saying it’s going to be easy. Everybody needs to take risks and everybody needs to take responsibility.”
He also said he hoped the IMC would deliver a positive report on IRA activity next week. The political institutions must be restored, added Mr Ahern, to deliver the people’s wishes.
“The comfort zone in which everybody can sit on their hands and just drift on, will be a mistake, because it won’t work that way.”
Mr Blair said it was eight years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
“I think we have learned throughout that a state of paralysis or stalemate is not a good place to be, however benign or placid things appear to be.
“Whilst that stalemate continues actually under the surface there are all those currents of instability present when there is not a true forceful direction moving the process forward.”
Earlier this week, Ian Paisley give his party’s proposals to Mr Blair at Downing Street.
He was at No 10 to present his party’s 16-page ‘Facing Reality’ document, which is understood to propose that the appointment of Ministers be deferred until the DUP is satisfied with Sinn Féin’s attitude.
The DUP leader said he would give Mr Blair time to reflect on his party’s blueprint before publishing it in about 10 days.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party has suggested the Belfast Assembly act in an advisory role to British Direct Rule officials, whole the SDLP has called for commissioners to be appointed to run departments in the absence of elected representatives.
Sinn Féin has blasted the unionist proposals as “an attempt to turn the clock back” and the SDLP’s plan as “foolish”.
Party president Gerry Adams said it was crucial that both governments make it clear that the object of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern’s discussions was to get the speedy restoration of fully functioning institutions.
“What is required is a genuine effort to make progress in the months ahead,” he said. “That means an end to the illegal suspension of the institutions imposed by the British government in October 2002. It means the triggering of the d’Hondt mechanism, for electing the executive. It means agreement by the DUP to take up their seats in an executive along with other mandated parties.
“It also means substantive progress on outstanding aspects of the agreement including demilitarisation, equality and human rights issues.
“It requires the conclusion of the debate on policing, Northern representation to be brought forward in the Oireachtas and the delivery of a peace dividend for the north and Border counties.
“The two governments, and in particular the British government, have a responsibility to make it clear that the DUP’s approach will not be allowed to stall progress further.”