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N. Ireland accord put on ice - for now

The Unionists refuse to govern with nationalists until they lay down arms.

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1999



LONDON

The Northern Ireland peace process was derailed yesterday, when Protestant unionists refused to form a new power-sharing administration with Catholic nationalists.

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Despite this major blow to the 15-month-old peace process, there still may be a way to put the agreement back on track - perhaps after a cooling-off period.

Prime Minister Tony Blair appealed to all parties not to become bogged down in present difficulties.

"The recriminations and criticism will pass," Mr. Blair said. "Put them behind you, and get back to work - work to build that trust, or solving your problems will remain impossible."

Mr. Blair had set Thursday as the deadline for the assembly to meet to choose ministerial posts, which were to be divided among unionists, nationalists, and republicans. If the deadline had been met, the British Parliament would have turned over government of local affairs to the new assembly in Belfast.

But David Trimble could not persuade his divided Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to form an administration that includes the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein. Seamus Mallon, deputy first minister of the Belfast Executive, immediately resigned, condemning the UUP's tactics and urged Mr. Trimble to do the same.

The unionists insist they cannot share power with the republicans until they agree to disarm. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has refused to disarm. But Sinn Fein - its political wing - argues that the guerrillas' two-year-old cease-fire proves its commitment to nonviolence.

As the London and Dublin governments began analyzing the crisis created by the rejection of a long-term peace plan, analysts saw reasons for hoping - and perhaps even believing - that a solution may yet soon be found.

Britain yesterday announced a formal review of Northern Ireland's tattered peace agreement.

"I will now take steps with the Irish government to institute a formal review under the Good Friday Agreement," Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam told parliament.

"It will not be a review of the agreement itself, but of its implementation," Mr. Mowlam added.

This means the two governments will search for new ways to relaunch the peace process.

Mr. Blair may choose another option: holding a new referendum in Northern Ireland where, according to the latest opinion polls, popular support for the peace process remains strong.

Jonathan Moore, a specialist in Irish politics at North London University, predicts that after a month or so, while the Northern Ireland peace process is "parked" and "tempers cool," the British and Irish governments will begin to "rebuild the resolve for a way forward."

Mr. Moore is convinced there has been "immense progress" on other key issues and believes "these could be built on."

"We actually have a Unionist party [the UUP] that is prepared to sit down and hold face-to-face discussions with republicans," he says. "And Sinn Fein has made it clear that it is willing to allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom while a majority of its citizens want it to.

"These are quite startling developments," Moore adds.

THE prospect now is that the peace process will be put on hold until September, while all parties consider their positions.

Paul Ben, professor of politics at Queens University in Belfast, says the latest crisis is "a blow to the peace process." But he shares the view that "it may be possible to salvage it."

An opinion poll last week reported by the Dublin-based Irish Times showed that three-quarters of the Northern Ireland electorate wanted an all-party devolved government in Belfast to be formed on the basis of the London-Dublin peace plan.

Support among Unionists for a devolved government was about 50 percent.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society