Blair and Ahern reveal chance for peace that slipped away

Tony Blair revealed today how agonisingly close he came to striking the political deal of a lifetime in Northern Ireland.

Tony Blair revealed today how agonisingly close he came to striking the political deal of a lifetime in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister outlined the delicate and carefully choreographed step-by-step process which would have involved the destruction of all IRA weapons by the end of the month and the restoration of a fully operational powersharing executive by March.

It followed several months of tense and difficult negotiations. He believed the plan would have been momentous, securing and sustaining an unprecedented opportunity for peace.

However, the deal failed to get the support it needed from both Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley because of republican resistance to the photographing of IRA disarmament.

In Belfast's Waterfront Hall this afternoon Mr Blair and the Irish Republic's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern disclosed details of their formula for powersharing and removing the gun forever from Northern Ireland politics.

They also released statements that would have been made by the DUP, Sinn Fein, General John de Chastelain's disarmament commission and the draft of a dramatic IRA statement which effectively signalled their terror campaign had officially ended.

According to the two Prime Ministers, the Provisionals would have said that in the event of a deal, the organisation would have entered a new era of pursuing its objectives through entirely peaceful means.

They claimed the IRA statement would have added: "All IRA volunteers have been given specific instructions not to engage in any activity which might thereby endanger the new agreement.

"We have also made it clear that the IRA leadership will, in this new context, conclude the process to completely and verifiably put all its arms beyond use."

Significantly, according to the documents released today, the IRA would have allowed two clergymen and a photographer to witness two acts of disarmament by the end of the year.

General de Chastelain's statement would have claimed an IRA representative told his commission the Provisionals would permit photographs to be taken and shown to politicians once the disarmament process was completed.

However, they would not be published until powersharing was restored. The clergymen would also be allowed to make public statements.

But it was clearly one step to far for republicans who feared Mr Paisley would use the photographs to humiliate Sinn Fein and boost his electoral might in the run up to Westminster and local government elections next Spring.

Despite today's setback, ministers in London and Dublin still believe the settlement is within reach and were anxious to bank the progress that has been made.

At the same time, they wanted to keep open the lines of communication.

Mr Blair said in Belfast: "What we have achieved is remarkable, but not complete."

Mr Blair added: "As a traveller I may be weary, but not downhearted. I think there is an inevitability to this process that is now locked in. I cannot see this process going backwards, but I do know it is going to require extra effort to finish the journey."

Mr Ahern said: "A comprehensive deal is a comprehensive deal. It means all issues being fully addressed by everyone, otherwise it's a piecemeal deal and that means major issues being unaddressed. We would never have made the progress that we have over the years had we followed such an approach."

On the issue of IRA weapons, the Taoiseach added: "The forms of transparency that are proposed in the government's proposals as recalled by the Prime Minister have nothing to do with surrender or humiliation. Certainty and clarity are two way streets and let us remember that. They apply equally to partnership politics as they do to the process of arms decommissioning."Mr Blair and Mr Ahern stressed the draft IRA, DUP and disarmament body documents represented what the governments believed all the organisations should say in the event of a deal.

The Prime Minister was anxious to play down the notion the IRA had made any commitment to a photographed act of disarmament.

"There is no allegation of bad faith here," he said.

"We are not saying people came to an agreement and then reneged on it ... What we have done in this document is to call it on the basis of what we think would have been a reasonable way through this.

"We think it would have been a reasonable compromise to do it in the way that we described, to have said you take the photographs but you don't actually publish them until you go into the executive."

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