DETERMINED to pump new urgency into the pursuit of peace, and worried about a possible return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland, Britain has decided to hack a way through obstacles to a settlement.
In the next few days, Prime Minister John Major plans to name a fixed date for electing a peace forum. The forum will then name delegates for an all-party negotiating panel, which is already set to meet June 10. He is also expected to lay down the terms for these elections, which are right now a matter of fierce debate among the various Catholic and Protestant political parties in Northern Ireland.
Downing Street sources said the election for the forum will be on May 30. The same sources added that the method of electing forum members will be a delicate compromise between two competing strategies.
One method is favored by the Ulster Unionists Party (UUP), Northern Ireland's largest party, which wants to maintain union with Britain. The other is backed by the smaller, hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Catholic, moderate Social Democratic and Liberal Party (SDLP).
The package is "a bid to accelerate progress and break the present deadlock," according to a British government official close to the peace process. It was outlined in a phone call by Prime Minister Major to his Irish counterpart John Bruton yesterday.
This weekend, 800 delegates from Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, are meeting in Dublin and are expected to debate London's plan for the elections.
Major is hoping that by putting forward a compromise and naming a firm date for elections, London and Dublin will regain the initiative in the peace process. But officials in both capitals yesterday conceded that the new strategy was controversial and, in the end, would depend heavily on Sinn Fein being able to persuade the IRA to restore the cease-fire before the May 30 election. So far the IRA has said it has no plans to call off its renewed campaign of violence.
Meanwhile, the compromise package is already generating political heat. The paper, to be published in a few days, is understood to propose that peace forum elections be held under a two-tier system, though some details of the package may still be amended.
One part of the poll would be based on Northern Ireland's 18 existing electoral constituencies and would produce 90 members of the forum. The UUP favors this system because it would be likely to give Protestants a clear majority. But the British plan also calls for a further 20 seats to be voted for on the basis of a list for a single Northern Ireland constituency, a system similar to that used in Northern Ireland for elections to the European Parliament.
DUP and SDLP leaders favor a single list because they believe it will result in more of their delegates being elected to the peace forum. "I cannot see the logic of it," said deputy SDLP leader Seamus Mallon, who had called for a vote based solely on a single list.
THE UUP is apparently unhappy with the package also. On Tuesday night, Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew outlined the terms of a British government consultation paper to David Trimble, leader of the UUP. After the meeting, Mr. Trimble was even more hostile. He called the proposed election system a "hybrid."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, for his part, has consistently opposed the electoral system favored by the UUP. He is virtually certain to back the British compromise if he can convince his party's delegate conference that it offers a way forward.
Another roadblock to be overcome before June 10 is the Protestant insistence that the IRA must give up its arms before all-party talks begin. After his meeting with Mayhew, Trimble criticized the consultation paper for failing to put arms decommissioning at the top of the list of priority items to be considered by the peace forum. A draft of the consultation paper, British newspapers have reported, says arms decommissioning should be only one of several priority items.