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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

DUP sees devolved structure in place by Spring

(by Frank Millar, the Irish Times)

A political deal in Northern Ireland this autumn could see the Democratic Unionist Party in government with Sinn Féin by next spring, The Irish Times has been told.

The surprise forecast by DUP sources followed a blunt warning from the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, and the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern, that September will mark "the point of decision" in the current attempt to restore the Stormont Assembly and Executive.

Mr Blair also allowed for the first time that the governments could be forced to look beyond the Belfast Agreement for a political way forward in the continuing absence of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. At the same time Mr Blair declined to say what "the alternative" might be, stressing that he wanted an inclusive agreement and believed it could be achieved.

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern emerged from a series of meetings with the DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Alliance, at Lancaster House in London to define four key issues requiring agreement during several days of intensive talks they will lead in September. And they declared their resolve then "to finalise agreement" on these outstanding matters -

  • a definitive and conclusive end to all paramilitary activity;
  • the decommissioning, through the International Commission, of all paramilitary weapons, to an early timescale and on a convincing basis;
  • a clear commitment on all sides to the stability of the political institutions and to any changes to their operation agreed within the Review; and
  • support for policing from all sides of the community, and on an agreed framework for the devolution of policing.

    This ambitious programme jarred with Sinn Féin's assertion that the governments had "wasted" yesterday's talks. Seemingly unconvinced by the public impatience shown by the Taoiseach and Prime Minister, the party's chairman Mr Mitchel McLaughlin told reporters: "We were here to do business and as we left, all of us in Sinn Féin looked on (today) as a missed opportunity. With September now the deadline being set by the governments, what we were looking for was for them to convince us that this is a serious process, so we could convince others."

    Mr McLaughlin continued: "Unfortunately we did not get any positive answers to that, and we are mindful that there have been many missed deadlines in the recent past." And he suggested "September will be another deadline that will pass by" unless the DUP engaged directly with Sinn Féin.

    By contrast, the DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley said they had had "a very useful exchange of views" and detected "the faint outline and context of a way forward that would be agreeable." Dr Paisley also reiterated his party's commitment to an inclusive settlement. "The DUP is fully committed, consistent with its mandate, to continue serious engagement with the Government (correct) in order to move negotiations forward. Our priority remains the return of devolution on a basis that involves all parties working together on a level playing field that is exclusively peaceful and democratic. There can be no tolerance of terrorism."

    Asked if September would really mark the end, Mr Blair said: "I think what we're saying is 'Yes' in terms of our ability to take this process forward."

    However a clue to the continuing determination of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to obtain agreement was contained in the joint government communiqué, which said: "We urged the parties to maintain their engagement over the summer with a view to advancing progress on these issues, and to prepare their respective communities for the substantial steps that will be required in order to reach overall agreement."

June 26, 2004

This article appears in the June 25, 2004 edition of the Irish Times.