Peace Train Steams Ahead for N. Ireland

Talks resumed Jan. 12. with a new 'road map' put on table by Britain. Backing by Protestant party and Sinn Fein is key.

Peace in Northern Ireland now depends on two of the province's leading politicians persuading their followers to stick to a "road map" drawn up by Britain and Ireland.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Northern Ireland's biggest political party, will play key roles in attempts to turn the Anglo-Irish peace plan tabled in Belfast Jan. 12 into a concrete and lasting settlement.

As the most influential leaders of the opposing Catholic and Protestant communities, it will be up to them to use the plan as a basis for ending more than a quarter century of terrorist conflict.

In the immediate aftermath of the plan's publication, prospects looked promising. A British official close to the peace talks described the early reactions of Mr. Adams and Mr. Trimble as "about as favorable as you could expect.

"The important thing is that none of the parties rejected the plan outright," the official said Jan. 13.

The formula worked out by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, proposes three main elements: a devolved government for Northern Ireland; a British-Irish Council including representatives of the Dublin and London Parliaments as well as Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland politicians; and a joint ministerial council to administer North-South cross-border facilities such as transportation.

Sinn Fein and the UUP both have said that deciding the scope and nature of the ministerial council would be crucial in future negotiations. Adams wants administrative links between the two parts of Ireland to be as close and active as possible. Trimble wants to keep cross-border arrangements to a minimum, because this would restrict Dublin's influence on Northern Ireland affairs.

It was Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews who described the peace plan as a "road map." His comment prompted the Dublin-based Irish Times to call it a "middle-of-the-road map."

Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, Mr. Andrews's British counterpart, hailed the document as "a breakthrough and a kick-start for substantive talks," which have been stalled since summer.

"These propositions are the two governments' best judgment of what might be the key elements of an overall agreement," Ms. Mowlam said.

Irish affairs analyst Paul Bew says a key to helping Trimble and Adams reach common ground in coming weeks will be the readiness and ability of the London and Dublin governments to "continue playing an active part in the peace process." Mr. Bew adds that "without active British and Irish participation" the two men will find it difficult to carry their followers with them.

In London it has been reported that Prime Minister Blair is about to sanction an official apology for the killing by British security forces of 14 Catholics in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1972. The anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" is Jan. 30. An apology would help Adams convince Sinn Fein and the IRA that London is sincere in its quest for peace.

Trimble has made it clear that if he is to keep the UUP happy, he will need British support for his own interpretation of the peace plan, with heavy stress on limiting North-South arrangements.

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