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Wednesday, April 8, 1998 Published at 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK




'The mountain to climb'
image: [ What have become known as the
What have become known as the "three strands" - in detail at the end of the article

The British and Irish Prime Ministers have made themselves available in personal attempts to keep the peace talks at Stormont on track.

The negotiations were thrown into crisis after unionists rejected a draft agreement drawn up by the independent chairman, the former American Senator George Mitchell. Unionists believe the draft is too favourable to nationalist demands.

BBC News online's special correspondent in Belfast, Gary Duffy, looks at the mountain Messrs. Blair and Ahern have to climb if they're to bring the talks to a successful conclusion by Thursday's deadline.

One of Northern Ireland's most experienced politicians has rather caustically described the latest round of peace talks as "Sunningdale for slow learners".

His point essentially is that the deal the politicians are working on now - and may or may not sign - is not that far removed from the historic agreement reached at the Sunningdale Conference Centre in 1974.

That agreement created a power-sharing executive at Stormont and proposed a cross-border Council of Ireland to foster relations between the two parts of the Island. Fears that the Council of Ireland was a stepping stone to unity with the Irish Republic provoked a loyalist workers' strike and major divisions within the unionist camp.

The power-sharing executive, a radical experiment for its time, eventually collapsed. It's a salutary lesson for the politicians engaged in today's negotiations, not least for Mr. Blair.

Then, as now, a British Prime Minister - Edward Heath - was closely involved in attempts to make a Northern Ireland peace initiative work. The fears and aspirations raised at the negotiating venue in Stormont this week are remarkably similar to those expressed in 1974.

Today it's clear that Tony Blair understands the need to reassure unionists that their place within the United Kingdom is secure. He's devoted much time and effort to the Northern Ireland issue and has held extensive meetings with David Trimble, leader of the main unionist party.

His message to the unionist leaders is simple and delivered with passion: your place within the United Kingdom is guaranteed until a majority of the people who live in Northern Ireland vote otherwise. But the Prime Minister believes this reassurance has to come with an important qualification.

Northern Ireland's minority community, has to be given some way to express its nationalist identity. And as Mr. Blair has largely agreed with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, one way to do that is to create cross-border bodies dealing with areas of mutual concern.

The dilemma for both men, and the parties at the talks, is just how much power should these bodies have, and to whom should they be accountable? Too much power and the unionists will be angry, too little and it's the nationalists who will be upset.

It's a challenge worthy of the Anglo-Irish officials who in the past have skillfully drafted some of the most ambiguous and heavily nuanced treaties ever produced to end a long-running conflict.

If that effort fails, and a compromise formula cannot be found, Northern Ireland faces some difficult and uncertain weeks and months ahead. And everyone knows there are plenty of violent groups hovering in the background, more than willing to reclaim any space left vacant by the politicians.

The three so-called strands on the table for discussion are:

NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY

Strand one of the talks - plans for a new elected assembly for Northern Ireland is still to be agreed. Ulster Unionists want it to be based on a series of committees, which they would control. Most Nationalists want a cabinet-style government, based on power sharing.

NORTH/SOUTH COUNCIL

The part of the peace proposals that the Ulster Unionists particularly object to is the so-called Strand Two - the proposal for a new north-south body. The Ulster Unionists want it to have very limited powers fearing that it could give the Irish Government an important role in the future of the province. The Nationalists want it to be an independent body with executive powers to implement its own decisions.

RELATIONS BETWEEN BRITAIN AND IRELAND

Strand three - Proposes the setting up of an inter-governmental Council sometimes called the "Council of the Isles", with representatives of the British and Irish Governments, the Northern Ireland assembly and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. This would meet twice a year at Summit level. It's the least controversial aspect of the three strands.






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In this section

From Despatches
Beyond soundbites - Blair's Ulster triumph

Northern Ireland deal reached

Peace plan revealed

Paramilitary prisoners 'free within two years'

Clinton to make return visit

IRA ceasefire 'extended'

The other side of the talks

A vow of silence?

Blair tries to allay unionist concern

Talks troubles not unexpected