Cross-border authority is still a big hurdle

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN the jargon of Anglo-Irish peace process, the "atmospherics" of last week were good. Tomorrow the action moves to Stormont - and back to reality. To begin with, there may be a symbolic attempt by the Unionists to have Sinn Fein excluded, or a protest, perhaps by refusing to sit in the same room.

The task ahead should not be under-estimated. With the British and Irish governments hoping to put an agreement to referenda north and south of the border in May, there are only three weeks left on the timetable. The endgame is fast approaching.

There are three "strands" and all contain problems. The first, dealing with the structures in Northern Ireland, may not be too difficult since an assembly is expected by all sides, although there will be hard bargaining over detail, particularly the electoral system.

But that is easy compared to north/south relations. Here the two governments envisage a cross-border ministerial body including representatives from the new assembly. The devil will be in the detail, its powers and method of working, its relationship to the assembly and the Irish parliament; nationalists want it to have wide executive powers; loyalists speak of small-scale areas of co-operation.

The third strand includes the proposed Council of the Isles, linking the assembly to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh assembly, and to Dublin. This is welcomed by Unionists, but the British dimension makes it difficult for Sinn Fein to accept.

Other key issues include the fate of paramilitary prisoners and the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A British government working paper suggests an international commission to investigate the structure of the RUC. Some nationalists would like it to be replaced by a new force, more representative of the community it covers, leaving the rump of the RUC (perhaps with a different name) to concentrate on serious crime and intelligence. That would be fiercely opposed by many Unionists.

To have a chance of winning referenda both north and south, the two governments need the agreement of two central party leaders: David Trimble and John Hume. The backing of Sinn Fein would be a bonus. Mr Trimble is under formidable party pressure to resist concessions and whether Mr Hume would sign a deal Mr Adams opposes is uncertain. Optimists consider that Sinn Fein might "acquiesce", rather than agree to a deal.

Washington has helped by stimulating contact between some political opponents, and by reinforcing American influence. But the real work starts in Belfast on Monday. As one source put it, "It is possible that they can do it if they overcome the culture of defeatism. But there are so many pebbles strewn along the path. If kicked each one could start an avalanche which could bury this process."

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