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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 January, 2005, 11:08 GMT
NI process on 'road to nowhere'
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

"So who is at Chequers today, then?" a gentleman on a horse enquired of the gentlemen of the fourth estate gathered on the side of a muddy country lane just outside the prime minister's country residence.

The scene appeared a world away from abductions in west Belfast and Loughinisland and bank employees being forced by armed men to empty their own vault.

Nevertheless, news of the country's biggest bank robbery had reached this part of rural Buckinghamshire.

"Ah, Gerry Adams" the horseman responded when told who the visitor was, "I hear Bertie Ahern gave him a bit of a roasting the other day". And with that he cantered off.

Chequers has, it seems, played a bigger part in the Northern Ireland process than has been previously documented. Asked whether he had visited the country residence before, Martin McGuinness replied with a smile "oh yes, many times".

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met the prime minister at Chequers

But this occasion promised to be different from some of the convivial chats Sinn Fein's chief negotiator had previously enjoyed with Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell.

Before heading in, Gerry Adams said that if the prime minister wanted a row he would give him a row. However, in the event, according to both sides, there was no angry confrontation.

Nevertheless, there are profound disagreements between the two sides. The government believes the IRA robbed the Northern Bank. Sinn Fein is adhering to the IRA denial. Gerry Adams says he wants to concentrate on the consequences.

But it's hard to know how two sides who don't agree where they are can reach agreement on where they are going.

Gerry Adams said Tony Blair did not raise the topic of sanctions at Chequers. However, there appear to be growing indications that some action against republicans will be taken.

Sanctions

The Independent Monitoring Commission could produce an ad hoc report on the Northern Bank raid fairly soon.

Moreover, there seems to be a desire in some political circles for any punishment of Sinn Fein, whether it is the withdrawal of Westminster allowances or not, to be announced before the general election campaign begins in earnest.

Although he will vehemently oppose any sanctions, Gerry Adams appears more concerned about the bigger picture.

He implies that in talks with the British Government in late December he was hopeful of advancing his all Ireland agenda, perhaps in return for delivering some of the IRA concessions then on offer. This now seems highly unlikely.

Could the NI Assembly operate without an executive?
Mr Adams has not ruled out an assembly without an executive

The Sinn Fein president wasn't prepared to respond in detail to any of the options that have been floated for a "Plan B" such as setting up an assembly without an executive and/or scrutiny committees keeping an eye on direct rule ministers.

He did not threaten to boycott such bodies, but indicated in general terms that he did not believe they were in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

The British and Irish Governments have spelled out their "stark" messages to Sinn Fein on paramilitarism and criminality.

But it is hard to see how they can put flesh on the bones of their talk about seeking "another way" forward.

Having got lost for a short time in the Chiltern hills en route to Chequers I began to form the image in my mind of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern as two motorists whose map reading skills have temporarily deserted them.

They can wind down their windows and ask the locals for directions, but they are liable to be told "if I was you, I wouldn't start from here".


SEE ALSO:
Adams tells republicans 'resist'
13 Jan 05 |  Northern Ireland
IRA raid claims: what happens now?
08 Jan 05 |  Northern Ireland
IRA bank raid claims 'damaging'
08 Jan 05 |  Northern Ireland
Police say IRA behind bank raid
07 Jan 05 |  Northern Ireland
Gang in '20m' bank raid
21 Dec 04 |  Northern Ireland


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