So near to a deal, yet so far

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will today present the crucial Northern Ireland peace talks with a key statement mapping out the future.

As negotiators last night avoided another early-morning session with an adjournment at midnight, senior sources denied that the two Prime Ministers intended to "park" the talks. It was instead suggested that they could propel the process forward with a new initiative. One participant said: "The two governments will give it their best shot. It has been tough but it's not lost yet."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman denied that Mr Blair had abandoned the idea of achieving a breakthrough on decommissioning, declaring: "We've made too much progress to stop now." They did not believe the gap between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein was unbridgeable.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams meanwhile released part of the text of the Sinn Fein proposal which has formed the basis for much of the week's negotiations. This says that participants "could successfully persuade those with guns that decommissioning should take place within the time frame set out in the agreement".

It is also expected that the long awaited report by General John de Chastelain on decommissioning will finally be published later today.

The fourth day of talks began with both Mr Blair and the Irish government being immensely heartened by the far-reaching Sinn Fein proposals that envisaged full IRA decommissioning in less than a year, but a tough rejoinder from Ulster Unionists meant the mood remained downbeat. A surge of hope was generated in the early evening, however, when the Prime Minister's official spokesman said he believed that an agreement was possible. He added: "When people see how close this is, if it fails they simply will not understand why.

"At today's round-table talks the Prime Minister said there was so much agreement between the parties that it had to be possible to conclude a final agreement on the two central issues. If there was not hope that we could get it sorted, we would not be here. There is certainly a sense of determination that we will do it."

Mr Blair and other participants such as the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, were clearly suffering from exhaustion after a marathon 18-hour session which had ended, suddenly and without agreement, at 4am yesterday. But the governments and parties reconvened at noon and slogged on throughout the day in an effort to close the gap. The atmosphere was not helped when both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists accused each other of bad faith and deception.

At the heart of negotiations is a Sinn Fein offer that in effect promises to ask the IRA to render all its weapons inoperable by May 2000, the second anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This deal goes far beyond what almost every participant and observer thought possible.

Guarantees and clear penalties for the republican movement are built into the proposal, which is being offered in exchange for the immediate entry of Sinn Fein into a new Northern Ireland government. Decommissioning would begin in December.

The emergence of the idea led, however, not to a breakthrough but a near- crisis for David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, since it did not meet their stated position that decommissioning should start simultaneously with the formation of a government.

Some Unionist representatives apparently fear a political drubbing from hardline loyalist opponents if the proposition is accepted, given that it would mean two Sinn Fein members becoming government ministers before any weaponry is decommissioned.

The annual contentious Drumcree Orange march, due on Sunday in Portadown, has already been banned, provoking fears that, as in previous years, trouble will break out on the streets. The formation of a government in advance of decommissioning would, some feel, leave the party vulnerable to an anti-Trimble campaign. Against that, London, Dublin and Washington are all intensely interested in the republican initiative. Mr Blair said: "I believe that what we have witnessed in the past few days are historic, seismic shifts in the political landscape of Northern Ireland."

Mr Blair said he sought to reassure Unionists that guarantees would be put in place to ensure that republicans honoured pledges on decommissioning, declaring: "We are prepared, as government, to give absolute legal failsafes." He said there would be sanctions if they did not.

Mr Trimble, however, projected huge mistrust when he responded: "Some willing people, some willing fools, have allowed themselves to be persuaded by some of the things that have been said.

But despite the spin, despite the smoke and mirrors, there has been no commitment made by the republican movement to decommission in terms that would be recognised by the Unionist community." Speaking just after noon, Mr Trimble insisted he had been given no definitive idea of the Sinn Fein proposals. Mr Adams said in a response: "For Mr Trimble to say that his party are not aware of the Sinn Fein propositions is wrong. The British Prime Minister told me yesterday that he had showed our propositions to the Unionist party leadership. Martin McGuinness and I met the Unionist negotiating team. We spelt out graphically what was in our propositions."

This was backed up by the Prime Minister's spokesman who, when asked whether the Unionists had seen republican proposals in writing, replied: "Yes."

President Bill Clinton was highly active during the negotiations, speaking by telephone to Mr Blair, Mr Adams and Mr Trimble.

More than 1,300 troops have been drafted into Northern Ireland to boost security levels in case of trouble at Drumcree over the weekend.

'There is no commitment... to decommission in terms recognisable to Unionists'

David Trimble

'There has been huge progress ... I believe that what we have witnessed over the past few days are historic seismic shifts in the political landscape in Northern Ireland'

Tony Blair

'This isn't about guns. This is about those who are against change'

Gerry Adams