No breakthrough in N. Ireland talks


Marathon efforts to save Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord produced progress but no breakthrough Saturday as a key Protestant leader headed home.

Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble, who triggered this month’s crisis by resigning as the Protestant leader of Northern Ireland’s joint Catholic-Protestant administration, said it still wasn’t clear — six days after high-pressure talks began at a secluded English mansion here — whether the Irish Republican Army intended to disarm.

Trimble insisted that the Northern Ireland administration, which includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, would collapse before Aug. 12 unless the IRA began scrapping weapons as it pledged last year. He left the talks for Belfast shortly before they ended, although key Ulster Unionist lieutenants remained at the table.

“What should happen is for the republican movement to stop shilly shallying, to stop prevaricating, to stop trying to blame other people, and to simply carry out the promise it made on the 6th of May last year, that it would put its weapons beyond use, completely and verifiably,” Trimble said. “Surely, the least they need to do is to keep their own word.”

The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, were expected to issue a joint statement Saturday as the negotiations at Weston Park, a 17th-century mansion in central England, ground to what both Trimble and Sinn Fein forecast as an inconclusive close.

Trimble said the prime ministers’ statement would “record the effort that has been made, and express the hope that further effort over the next few days and weeks may bear fruit.”

Sinn Fein said the British government had issued detailed proposals for reforming Northern Ireland’s mostly Protestant police force, and for cutting its military garrison, both key Sinn Fein-IRA demands. It declined to offer specifics.

But Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun, health minister in the Northern Ireland administration, said the British proposals still didn’t meet their expectations. And when pressed on what it would take to secure an IRA start to disarmament, she insisted: “We are certainly not, as might be implied, in there negotiating on behalf of the IRA on the question of arms.”

Sinn Fein’s delegation also narrowed down to a trio of key officials in the dying hours of the negotiations. Party leader Gerry Adams and deputies Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly are all considered past or present members of the IRA’s ruling seven-member Army Council, which have to sanction any scrapping of weapons.

Earlier, the other major Catholic-supported party in the administration, John Hume’s moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, noted that the 1998 pact included a weapons “decommissioning” section that the IRA should have honored by now.

Hume said if the IRA began putting its weapons “beyond use” in cooperation with a disarmament commission — as the outlawed group had promised to do in May 2000 — this would allow all other outstanding aspects of the peace process to move swiftly forward.