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Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK

UK Politics

Q&A: Northern Ireland's peace process

The Good Friday Agreement promised a new dawn

The Search for Peace
Jonny Dymond of the BBC World Service, who is in Belfast as the deadline for a new deal approaches, explains how Northern Ireland's peace process reached the current impasse, despite the progress made in the Good Friday Agreement.

Why are the peace talks stalled again after the breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement?

The problem is the same thing that has been plaguing the peace process for the last year, that is what is called decommissioning, or what other people would call disarming or the handing in of paramilitary weapons.

The Ulster Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, insists that they must have some weapons handed in by paramilitary groups, largely the IRA but also some loyalist groups, before they will share power in the executive with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

Ireland Correspondent David Eades : "Decommissioning offers a mark of good faith"
Sinn Fein points out, correctly, that it is not in the agreement they signed last year in April that weapons must be handed in. They also say that they cannot speak for the IRA and cannot force the IRA to hand in weapons.

So, you have two parties who disagree fundamentally over the agreement they signed last year and seem unable to find a middle way.

Why was this not sorted out in the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement was a very intricately worded document to give various things to both sides.

[ image: Arms decommissioning remains a sticking point]
Arms decommissioning remains a sticking point
Decommissioning was always going to be one of the most difficult things for republicans and loyalists to agree upon.

What they did effectively is they fudged it. What they said was all parties who signed up to the agreement had to use their "good offices" to persuade paramilitary groups to decommission by May 2000.

Sinn Fein says they are happy to try to persuade the IRA to sign up, but they are unable and unwilling to try to force the IRA to. The Ulster Unionists on the other hand say Sinn Fein is the IRA or is inextricably linked to the IRA and is completely able to force the IRA to hand it weapons.

So the fudge over decommissioning in the Good Friday Agreement is, to mix a metaphor, coming home to roost.

Can they reach a deal now?

The simple answer is, I think, nobody knows. Both sides play two different games. They play the blame game - making sure that they are not blamed for the agreement falling apart - but they also play a classic negotiating game - setting out very hardline positions.

I suspect what is being put forward are very intricate ways of "sequencing" - one gesture by one side, followed by another from the other side.

But the Ulster Unionist Party has made it very clear that it demands product - that is guns, explosives, bombs - before it will do anything. What must be remembered in the political process here is that there is immense pressure from grassroots on David Trimble. He does not have the freedom to manoeuvre because they are saying to him, this is the bottom line.

Is this deadline more serious than those in the past? What will happen if it passes without a deal?

It is serious in that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has called this an absolute deadline. He has said there is no Plan B.

He has stressed for the last few months that this is the one. Officials that I have spoken to have made it clear that they don't have a second negotiating position and that they are extremely unwilling to come back here in September and start again.

We have heard a lot from the British prime minister's office about how much time he has spent on this process - 70 meetings in Downing Street, 40 in Northern Ireland - he's spent more time on the Northern Ireland question than any other recent British prime minister. I think there is a genuine sense of fatigue.

Having said that, there is a sense of brinkmanship. A feeling that the very hard deadline set by George Mitchell, the talks negotiator last year, was a spur to a result coming out.

How is the latest deadline regarded by people living in Northern Ireland?

Ordinary people in Northern Ireland are feeling rather wearied by the entire process. Those that I have spoken to suggest they are bored by it. They are always much more interested in politics in Northern Ireland than they are in Britain, but there's a real sense of weariness here.

There is certainly a keenness that there should be some result, but there is none of the excitement and enthusiasm that there was with the negotiations last April for the Good Friday Agreement.

Could the release of paramilitary prisoners be affected by the latest talks?

[ image: Prisoner releases will not stop, unless violence returns]
Prisoner releases will not stop, unless violence returns
I do not think you will see a halt to prisoner release. Both the Irish Government and the British Government have made it clear that prisoner releases are an integral part of the agreement.

As far as recalling prisoners is concerned, it has been made clear if there is any return to paramilitary violence then prisoners could be recalled.

Is there any danger of a return to violence by the IRA or other paramilitary groups?

It must be said that most commentators do not think the IRA is ready to break its ceasefire. There are a combination of reasons.

Firstly, the political wing, Sinn Fein, has gained an enormous amount of support, because it is being seen as the peaceful face of the republican movement. It gathers almost one fifth of the vote in Northern Ireland - that vote would be slashed if there was a return to violence.

Another point is that prisoner release would end and prisoners would be recalled.

Also, security sources suggest that the IRA has been closely targeted themselves during the ceasefires and as a military operation returning to active status would be much more difficult than before.

Having said that, it is a cliché, but in the absence of political progress violence often returns. That is clearly one of the major concerns for a large number of people in Northern Ireland.

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