Leading Article: Setting deadlines in Northern Ireland is a dangerous game

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The Independent Culture
WHAT A frustrating few days for the British Prime Minister. Last week Tony Blair was hailed as the war leader who had rallied the 19 nations of the Nato Alliance to defeat the "ethnic cleansers" of Belgrade; this week he is searching for explanations to explain the Labour Party's failure in the elections to the European Parliament and confronting the unyielding enmities of Northern Ireland's political leaders. For implementing the Good Friday agreement is back on the agenda.

Those who have been distracted by the war in Kosovo may need to be reminded that, as the bombing began in Serbia, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern set a new final deadline of 30 June for ending the impasse over decommissioning IRA weapons, which is blocking the formation of an executive for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Yesterday, in a speech in Belfast, Mr Blair announced that this deadline is to be taken as "absolute". "Either on 1 July we will move this process forward, or we will have to look for another way forward," he said.

Setting deadlines can be a dangerous game, particularly if a doomsday mechanism is primed to follow their breakdown. Would Nato have threatened to bomb Milosevic if it had known that he would not surrender after three days? Would dismantling the Good Friday agreement - even owing to understandable exasperation - not simply exacerbate the tensions that will inevitably surround this summer's "marching season"? It may be true that all-night sessions at Stormont in 1988 brought forward a document that commanded the assent of the electorate in the subsequent referendum, but such a happy outcome cannot be ordered up on demand.

Decommissioning has assumed symbolic importance for both hard-line Unionists and militant republicans. The former, bolstered by the high level of support for Ian Paisley in the European elections, may not be interested in reaching a compromise that will allow Sinn Fein into the new Northern Ireland executive. And the latter have made it clear often enough that they will not "surrender" their weapons as a "pre-condition". It is not surprising that it is proving difficult to chart a clear passage between this Scylla and Charybdis, but the surrounding seas are less turbulent than they have been for years.

Nothing is to be gained from tearing up the Good Friday agreement on 1 July. While the province continues to function relatively peaceably, it would be best to take small steps where large ones are impossible. The next fixture is the marching season, beginning on 5 July at Drumcree; let the politicians turn their attention to keeping that peaceable. Then, if need be, perhaps they might cancel their summer holidays and spend the time talking to each other. That should concentrate their minds.