Northern Ireland’s Kent talks fail – ISN

DERRY – Three days of intensive talks on Northern Ireland’s political future ended on Saturday afternoon without a deal.

However  the Irish and British governments remained positive in the aftermath of this latest failure to resolve the ongoing problems in fully implementing the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s landmark peace deal forged in 1998.

Both British Prime Minster Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern believe that the basis is there for an agreement in the near future. Held at Leeds Castle in Kent in the south of England, the much-anticipated talks opened amid an uncertain atmosphere.

Essentially, the talks revolved around the two governments’ attempts to broker an agreement between nationalist Sinn Féin, allegedly the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by firebrand Presbyterian Reverend Ian Paisley.

The parties emerged as the two largest in Northern Ireland after last November’s Legislative Assembly elections, signaling an apparent polarization of politics in the province, almost six years after the peace agreement. However, recent weeks saw positive signals emerging in advance of the talks, with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams stating that it was conceivable that the IRA would cease to exist at some stage in the future.

Sources from within the DUP suggested that it may be interested in cutting a deal, despite their continued opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. This opposition to the existing terms of that peace deal was apparently the main reason why an agreement could not be found over this weekend.

Despite both governments’ belief that the IRA is willing to disarm – possibly by Christmas in the event of a restoration of devolution – the DUP have held fast to their desire to rework core aspects of the devolved institutions of government.

The party wants to revise the manner in which the first minister and deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland executive are elected, and change how the Northern Ireland executive is monitored by the elected Assembly. These changes are outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and are opposed by all other parties in Northern Ireland, including the DUP’s Unionist rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

On Monday, a series of follow-up discussions were scheduled in Belfast with officials from governments and representatives from the political parties. It is believed that both governments are aiming for a mid-October deadline to seal a deal that would restore Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions of government, including the disarming of paramilitary organizations, and address other issues, such as control of policing and British troop withdrawal.

However, given Northern Ireland’s litany of abortive deal-making in the past, few observers are overly optimistic that a distracted Blair government —  struggling with a violent occupation of Iraq and a G-8 summit to manage — can provide any impetus to the talks.

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