BELFAST, Northern Ireland – British and Irish leaders published a detailed plan Wednesday for reviving a Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland (search) — a peace-building project still on hold because of unsolved arguments about IRA disarmament.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (search) have spent the past year struggling to forge an unlikely agreement between the province's two biggest and most polarized parties: the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein (search), the Irish Republican Army-linked party (search).
Standing together inside Belfast's riverfront concert hall, Blair and Ahern insisted that a deal between the two long-standing enemies was tantalizingly close. They conceded that a breakthrough had been thwarted in part because the IRA refuses to allow photographs of its disarmament to be published — but they stressed that an eventual deal was inevitable.
"Having come this far and having done this much — I may be weary as a traveler but I'm not downhearted," Blair said. "I can't see this process going backwards, but I do know it's going to require extra effort to complete the journey."
Blair and Ahern revealed their governments' joint 23-page plan, which offered a step-by-step guide for reviving power-sharing, the central goal of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord (search).
They had presented an earlier draft of the plan Nov. 17 to both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists and pressed, so far in vain, for their full acceptance.
Shortly before they spoke, Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley (search) insisted the IRA hadn't made any new disarmament commitments at all and was using the matter of photographs as a red herring.
The IRA confirmed Tuesday night that it had reopened talks with the disarmament chief, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, after a 13-month break.
But Paisley, speaking after meeting de Chastelain on Wednesday in Belfast, said the general had told him the IRA had made no new commitments, including on a publicly verifiable process of disarmament.
Paisley said it was "quite clear that the IRA aren't going to decommission. Nothing has been agreed with them."
He emphasized that his party required "a complete, clear, total survey in photographs of all that they (disarmament officials) do."
Blair and Ahern, who both came to power in 1997, have spent much of their premierships on promoting a stable, peaceful Northern Ireland. Their efforts led to a Catholic-Protestant administration in 1999 that ran most of the province's government departments instead of Britain.
But the four-party coalition — led by moderates, not the current dominant hard-line parties — collapsed two years ago following a string of arguments over continued IRA activities.
When the IRA offered unknown amounts of weaponry to de Chastelain from 2001 to 2003, it insisted on total secrecy, undermining Protestant support for power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
But Sinn Fein insisted the Democratic Unionists would want to use photographs to humiliate the IRA, an underground group that in 1997 halted its campaign to abolish Northern Ireland after killing 1,800 people.
"Sinn Fein did not agree to anything to do with photographs. ... Humiliation doesn't work," said Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly, a legendary IRA figure who pioneered the use of car bombs in London in 1973.
The Anglo-Irish plan sought the IRA's full disarmament by the end of this month, followed by the convening of the Northern Ireland legislature in January. Lawmakers would elect an administration, jointly led by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, by March.
The package also included several detailed scripts for each key participant in the talks to read:
— Sinn Fein would pledge support for Northern Ireland's police force;
— The Democratic Unionists would promise to govern alongside Sinn Fein;
— De Chastelain would confirm that the IRA had agreed to allow photos of disarmament to be taken, and for Catholic and Protestant clergymen to serve as independent witnesses.
Crucially, Blair and Ahern proposed that any disarmament photos would be shown to Protestant leaders only once the general had published his final report on IRA disarmament. The photos would have been published on the same day that the power-sharing administration was elected.
"We believe that would have been a workable compromise," Blair said.