Dublin proposes Bosnia-style peace plan

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The Independent Online
DAVID MCKITTRICK

and ALAN MURDOCH

The Irish peace process took a significant new turn yesterday with the emergence of a Dublin proposal for a conference - similar to the gathering in Dayton, Ohio, which brokered the Bosnia peace deal - to break the impasse over all-party talks on Northern Ireland.

The Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, caused a major surprise by announcing the idea, following unsuccessful talks in Dublin with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

In effect, it amounts to a counter-proposal to the idea of elections which was recently advanced in the Commons by John Major, indicating that a large gap exists between the two governments on the question of how to proceed. Later yesterday Mr Spring flew to Washington, where he will seek support from President Bill Clinton and other important figures in the US administration.

The Dublin idea brought speedy criticism from Sir Patrick's deputy, Michael Ancram, who described it as "at best premature." Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis was less diplomatic, declaring: "I cannot believe that Mr Spring has not been hit on the head by a very hard snowball. This is mischievous and quite ridiculous." The proposal was, by contrast, warmly welcomed by the SDLP leader, John Hume.

Sir Patrick Mayhew did not refer to the Dayton idea when he emerged from his talks with Mr Spring, instead commending an election as "certainly not a hurdle, but a door opening to the conference chamber." Mr Spring, however, revealed the idea had been put to Sir Patrick at their inconclusive meeting last week, adding that no agreement had been reached on it with the British side.

Mr Spring said his proposal envisaged all parties being present in the same building, though without them necessarily facing one another across a table. British and Irish intermediaries would move between the sides. He said the Stormont complex in Belfast, the scene of numerous rounds of talks in the past, would be an ideal location.

He compared this to the talks in Dayton, Ohio, which had helped towards a settlement of the Bosnian conflict, adding: "Since they're unlikely to want to sit around the same table, we have proposed that they should all be invited to the same building for two days of intensive multilateral discussions.

"If they can work in that context I see no reason why we should not develop them in our situation."

He made it clear that, despite the obvious British resistance, the matter would continue to be pressed in a summit meeting between Mr Major and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, later this month. Both governments remain theoretically committed to a target date of all-party talks opening by the end of this month, but London clearly regards this as in practice impossible, without the prior de-commissioning of IRA weaponry.

The British description of the idea as premature drew a swift rejoinder from an Irish government source, who asked: "How can it be premature, three weeks before a target date which we declared three months ago as a firm date for reaching? What other suggestion have we got for reaching that date?"

The sharp tone of these and other recent comments from Dublin reflect the anger stirred in Irish nationalist circles by Mr Major's election announcement, which was seen in Dublin as a deliberate ploy to delay the opening of talks. A surge of anti-British and anti-Unionist feeling has been evident ever since.

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