Blair tells parties: we must make a breakthrough

Intensive talks move to England to try to resolve the arms decommissioning issue amid growing signs of optimism
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The Independent Online

The British and Irish governments gathered the Northern Ireland parties in the splendid political seclusion of Shropshire yesterday, intent on pressing for a breakthrough in the Irish peace process.

A largely symbolic two-hour round-table session served as the preliminary for two days of intensive talks aimed at resolving arms decommissioning and the other issues that have led to the present impasse.

Although London and Dublin technically have until mid-August to find an agreement before taking drastic action, Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, are aiming to crack the problems this week.

The key negotiations will centre on Sinn Fein, which will be pressed to deliver on IRA decommissioning, and the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader, David Trimble, has resigned as Northern Ireland's First Minister.

Sinn Fein will be pressing for significant changes to policing legislation, and an accelerated programme of demilitarisation in terms of the visibility of the army and RUC. Any breakthrough must involve an agreed package covering all these topics.

The smaller pro-Good Friday Agreement parties attended the opening plenary session but then departed, leaving Sinn Fein, the Unionists and the nationalist SDLP to carry on the real business.

The comments of the two prime ministers projected determination but no excess of optimism. Mr Blair said: "It is very much better to be negotiating and working through the difficulties by dialogue than, as you can see from the situation in the Middle East, for people to be resolving these issues through violence. There's a real sense of duty we have over the next few days to get this done."

Mr Ahern said: "If we work together I believe we can come to a sensible conclusion."

All the signs are that the two governments will not simply be making stand-and-deliver demands of the republicans, but will rather be seeking to engage in a multifaceted negotiation with them and the other parties.

There are four main issues on the agenda: weaponry, policing, demilitarisation and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement's institutions ag-ainst future threats.

The issues are clearly linked, most overtly in IRA statements, which place the possibility of decommissioning in the context of demilitarisation and future policing arrangements.

London has steadily wound down security in recent years in the light of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, but violence has not ceased altogether, particularly from both republican and loyalist splinter groups.

In the interests of public safety high levels of troops and police are therefore still deployed, with dozens of sizeable security bases still in use. If the present decline in violence is maintained security will continue to be wound down, though the rate of relaxation is variable.

On policing, most of the recommendations of the Patten Commission, set up under the Good Friday Agreement, have been put into place. But some key issues remain unresolved, and until they are Sinn Fein say they will not endorse new policing arrangements.

On the Agreement's institutions the republicans, who ironically spent so many years trying to destabilise Ireland, want measures to make things more stable.

The political facts of life are that Mr Trimble, having resigned because of insufficient movement on guns, cannot contemplate going back into government in the absence of substantial movement on guns.

But the IRA will not move simply in response to his demands, because it says it does not give in to Unionist ultimatums, and because it reckons he may not be around politically for more than a few months. It will not make sacrifices for what could be a lame-duck leader

If the IRA does move it will be partly to shore up the Assembly and the other institutions it values highly.

And any movement will be in the context of an overall package, which will include developments on the other issues on the table.