'Take it or leave it' plan presented to Northern Ireland parties

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The Independent Online

The British and Irish governments gave their 'take it or leave it' peace proposals to key Northern Ireland parties on Wednesday, emphasizing that a start to IRA disarmament was crucial to saving the Northern Ireland Assembley.

The British secretary of state, John Reid, and Irish Foreign Secretary Brian Cowen unveiled the 2,800­word document at Hillsborough Castle, Reid's residence outside Belfast, after months of grueling diplomacy. They appealed to politicians to think carefully before responding by Monday, saying the survival of the 1998 peace accord was at stake.

"Over the past three years we've come a very long way in Northern Ireland in addressing the historic and deep­seated problems here," Reid said. "Having traveled this far, it would be nothing short of tragic if that progress were to be jeopardized now."

"The continuing stalemate can only play into the hands of those who would wreck all that we have worked so hard together to achieve," Cowen said, referring to recent sectarian riots in Belfast and Wednesday's funeral for the latest victim, a teen­ager shot to death by fellow Protestants.

The document sought to spur IRA disarmament and, in turn, a continuation of Northern Ireland's 20­month­old administration, which faces suspension or total collapse by Aug. 12. Disarmament and power­sharing are both important goals of the Good Friday pact.

Wednesday's proposals contained no detailed demands for an IRA move, only a statement that it must happen in cooperation with a Canadian­led disarmament commission set up in 1997. Analysts expected the IRA's ruling Army Council to respond to the British­Irish plan within the next week.

The plans offered much detail on chiefly Catholic demands: continued British military withdrawals, reform of the province's overwhelmingly Protestant police force, and investigations into alleged collusion by police, soldiers or prison officers in murder cases.

The governments said an immediate start to IRA disarmament was "indispensible" to lowering British security, which has already been pared substantially since 1998. The perceived level of threat from dissidents violating the IRA's 1997 cease­fire also would influence cutbacks.

"Provided the threat is reduced, the British government will carry out a progressive rolling program reducing levels of troops and installations in Northern Ireland," said the document, which specified four installations for early demolition, two on the border where IRA support runs high.

"Ultimately the normal state would mean the vacation, return or demolition of the great majority of army bases, the demolition and vacation of all surveillance towers, no further army presence in police stations, and the use of army helicopters for training purposes only," it read.

The governments said they would appoint a foreign judge to probe eight suspicious killings ­ three of Catholics, five of Protestants. All involve allegations that police or other authorities in Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic aided the killers.

The governments also offered amnesty to any IRA member living in exile from Britain or Ireland because of outstanding charges.

Tensions within Northern Ireland's power­sharing regime mushroomed into a crisis last month when the senior Protestant member, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, resigned and said he'd seek re­election to the post only if the IRA began disarming.

Trimble said on Wednesday that the British­Irish plan would be "irrelevant in the absence of decommissioning" of IRA weapons.

"The crisis will only be resolved by republicans fulfilling their obligations," Trimble said. "A fresh promise to keep last year's dishonored promise will not suffice."

Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has twice led his Protestant party into coalitions alongside Sinn Fein ­ both times as part of deals that envisioned disarmament would result.

In February 2000, Britain stepped in to suspend the administration's powers when Trimble faced a party revolt. Three months later, Trimble persuaded a narrow majority of Ulster Unionists to resume work alongside Sinn Fein after the IRA issued an unprecedented pledge to begin putting weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use."