Deadline stretched for Ulster Assembly after DUP demands

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern bought more time yesterday to secure a fresh peace accord on Northern Ireland. The leaders used talks with party leaders in Downing Street yesterday to extend a deadline for the negotiations beyond today into next week.

Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern bought more time yesterday to secure a fresh peace accord on Northern Ireland. The leaders used talks with party leaders in Downing Street yesterday to extend a deadline for the negotiations beyond today into next week.

The British and Irish governments are still optimistic about reaching a deal to restore the power- sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland by March. The DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, warned Mr Blair in private talks that a deal would depend on whether the IRA is prepared to become an "old boys' association" and supply more convincing evidence that it is decommissioning its weapons.

An ally of Mr Paisley, who is MP for Antrim North, said: "The talks are inching forward but I am not in a position where I can say that a deal will definitely happen. "I think we are all coming to the point where the parties will soon have to make a judgement about what's on offer but right now the ball is in the court of the two governments. They have received specific points about their recent proposals for a deal which require clarification and I would expect them to come back to us within 24 hours. When we receive those, we will be in a better position to say whether this will float or not."

It is understood that Mr Paisley has given the prime ministers a six-page document, seeking clarification on 40 points in the proposals they put to the DUP and Sinn Fein last week to revive power-sharing. DUP sources insisted the party regarded its demand that there should be a visible aspect to any future acts of IRA disarmament as a deal-breaker. It had been suggested that Catholic and Protestant clergy could witness future IRA weapons decommissioning acts. But the DUP has been pressing for a more visual aspect to decommissioning in the form of photographic or video evidence.

Part of the deal also includes a proposed "peace dividend" which might be donated by the British Government to help underwrite the agreement. The Sinn Fein chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, has said he believes serious consideration had been given to the idea. He dismissed rumours that the fund could be as much as £1bn but said he anticipated it would be a " very significant" amount.

The DUP also regards institutional issues such as greater cabinet collective responsibility in the power-sharing executive as essential. The British and Irish governments rejected a demand by Mr Paisley that Assembly ministers, including Sinn Fein spokesmen, should be answerable to the majority DUP.

After Mr Paisley met Mr Ahern, he signalled that if a deal was struck, his party would test the bona fides of republicans over a five-month period. But the British and Irish Governments want a shorter period for implementing a deal, with the IRA completing disarmament by March when power-sharing would be resumed.

Other sources noted that while the DUP leader had called for the IRA to complete weapons decommissioning and end all criminality, he appeared to concede that the organisation could continue in some form.

Mr Paisley had said: "They have nothing to do but to be an old boys' association." A talks source said: "I think the use of that phrase is interesting. He is no longer talking about the IRA vanishing. It could still be around as an old boys' association."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the talks had been "serious and constructive", adding: "The parties will want to reflect over the coming days, and time is short for people to make up their minds. I can see this going into next week, but not much beyond. We are not going to get into a game of precise deadlines but everyone knows time is short."

Mr Ahern said the governments sought a comprehensive deal that covered all major issues, such as policing, demilitarisation and decommissioning.

Comments