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Saturday, April 17, 1999 Published at 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK

UK Politics

Question marks over peace plan

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern: Grim determination

By BBC Northern Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray

The Northern Ireland peace process is in as much trouble as at any time.

The Search for Peace
The core difficulty in implementing the Good Friday Agreement reached at Stormont last year remains the same, and just as intractable as ever.

Sinn Fein has two seats in the executive cabinet of the devolved assembly set up by the agreement. Four parties have seats, decided on the basis of their electoral support.

But the Ulster Unionist Party insists it will not sit in the executive with Sinn Fein until there is at least a beginning to the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

[ image: David Trimble: Faces serious danger if Sinn Fein joins executive]
David Trimble: Faces serious danger if Sinn Fein joins executive
Sinn Fein says it simply cannot deliver the handover of weapons being demanded of the IRA, and this is a new precondition and not in the original agreement.

That is where the deadlock lies, and in an attempt to break it, the UK and Irish prime ministers came to Northern Ireland in the week before Easter to meet all the relevant parties.

It was somewhat in the style of the hot-house, through-the-night style used in making the agreement in the first place.

They did not get a breakthrough, but issued their Hillsborough Declaration (so-called as it was made at Hillsborough Castle, County Down).

No giving up

Effectively, that is now off the table, and the two governments have accepted that, in this form at least, it is not going to fly.

They also insist that many of the principles in it will be revisited.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Irish Taioseach Bertie Ahern have got together again, the mood rather one of grim determination.

They have announced they will bring the key Northern Ireland parties to London to meet them both. There will not be a round-table session involving all sides, but the two prime ministers will have talks with the Ulster Unionists, the nationalist SDLP, and Sinn Fein.

[ image: Gerry Adams: Argument is based on realpolitik]
Gerry Adams: Argument is based on realpolitik
Something that is stressed by officials in both governments is that while both men have many other very serious issues to worry about, they are not going to give up on this one, and that their own working relationship is as good as it gets in politics.

The questions facing the parties are somewhat similar. If David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader accepts that the executive is formed, even in shadow form, with Sinn Fein in it and without any form of decommissioning, his leadership would be in serious danger. There are enough in his own party who oppose the original agreement.

If Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have long had one priority - it is that they will not face the hideous consequences of a split in the republican movement.

Squaring the circle

If the IRA activists tell them that decommissioning is tantamount to surrender, then the Sinn Fein leadership is not going to force the issue, despite the fact that they have lost the argument with everyone else, and have no moral principle behind their stance - it is based solely on realpolitik.

The task for the prime ministers and the parties has not changed - to square the circle they have created for themselves, and so implement the political agreement they all support.

As the independent chairman of the talks that led to that agreement, former US senator George Mitchell, has said - history would have forgiven failure to reach agreement, it will not forgive failure to make it work.

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