Northern Ireland talks hit fever pitch – ISN


DERRY – It has been two weeks since the Irish and British governments handed Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) its revised terms for the restoration of devolution to Northern Ireland, a key part of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of civil conflict in the region.

Since then, both parties have consulted their grassroots, come up with responses and requests for clarification for the governments, and engaged in a series of talks with relevant policymakers in Belfast, Dublin, and London.

However their respective dealings have not included face-to-face meetings as the DUP refuses to meet with a party it sees as indistinguishable from the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

All contacts have been mediated by the Irish and British governments. This morning the DUP leader Reverend Ian Paisley was in London to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair, while a Sinn Féin delegation led by Gerry Adams was in Dublin to meet the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force.

US President George Bush telephoned Paisley and Adams over the weekend to express his support for the current phase of the process. General John de Chastelain, head of the body appointed to oversee decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, is in Northern Ireland in advance of any move by the IRA to hand in its vast arsenal.

De Chastelain met with Ian Paisley yesterday, to discuss decommissioning — the major obstacle to a deal — according to Paisley.

Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin stated that decommissioning was something that de Chastelain would have to deal directly with the IRA on, claiming that his party “has no leverage” over the paramilitaries.

The proposed verification methods of the decommissioning, if and when it takes places, will likely center around the provision of photographic evidence and witness by two churchmen whose identity will be agreed by the parties.

Yesterday, Adams met with the Chief Constable of the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI), Hugh Orde, a meeting described as landmark as it was the first time that Sinn Féin spoke directly to the head of the police service for Northern Ireland.

The previous version of the PSNI – the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was targeted regularly by the IRA, which killed almost 300 force members during the 30-year conflict. The RUC was regarded as a pro-unionist institution by Northern Ireland nationalists.

Adams and Orde discussed the possibilities for demilitarization in Northern Ireland – something Sinn Féin sees as crucial to persuading the IRA to hand in its weapons.

To many in Northern Ireland it was and is unthinkable that the hardline pro-UK element represented by Ian Paisley, and the party that is allegedly the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin, could possibly compromise on a deal to govern Northern Ireland.

But these negotiations follow a so-called “near-miss” during negotiations held in  Leeds Castle talks in September — the near miss description suggesting that an unprecedented deal and the sharing of power between two historically implacable foes could be possible.

Failure to reach a deal this time around would likely mean no return to devolution for Northern Ireland before general elections in Britain next May.

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