Blair Plan Breaks Ground for Peace in N. Ireland

British and Irish officials were to unveil peace formula, as talks resumed yesterday.

The future of the Northern Ireland peace process - and of the troubled province itself - now hangs on political reactions to a single sheet of paper drawn up by Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After two days of intense telephone diplomacy linking London, Dublin, Belfast, and Tokyo, where Mr. Blair was on an official visit, the draft peace formula was expected to be presented jointly by the British and Irish governments as talks resumed yesterday in Belfast.

Analysts spoke of "an air of expectancy" as key parts of the document were leaked to the media.

The "Blair plan" reportedly consists of three main elements:

* Creation of a Northern Ireland assembly, in which Protestants and Catholics would share power and elect a regional government.

* A Council of the British Isles, made up of representatives of the British and Irish Parliaments, and nominees from planned legislative assemblies for Scotland and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland itself.

* Establishment of a series of cross-border panels to forge limited administrative links between Northern Ireland and Ireland in such areas as health and transportation.

Blair officials say the three elements, designed to appeal to all of the main Northern Ireland interest groups, are intended to form the basis of a lasting political agreement.

Yesterday's negotiations in Belfast got under way after Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam persuaded wavering Protestant loyalist groups to remain at the table.

Risky gambit

Mowlam held controversial talks Friday in the city's maximum-security Maze prison with convicted loyalist and republican terrorists. Her package of proposals to the loyalists included a veiled hint that, if they cooperate, Maze inmates could expect early release.

Meanwhile, Blair officials said the prime minister had "used every available hour" in Tokyo to seek agreement to his plan ahead of the talks' resumption.

Irish affairs analyst Paul Bew says much will depend on Blair's ability to persuade the Irish government and Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to accept a limited scope for the proposed cross-border administrative councils.

Mr. Bew says David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's biggest political party, is unwilling to accept councils which "may result eventually in the de facto unification" of the two parts of Ireland.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams continues to insist unification is his ultimate goal.

There were reports, however, in Dublin yesterday that Mr. Adams was under pressure from Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to accept a compromise formula limiting the powers of cross-border councils.

The British joint initiative - Mowlam with her prison visit, and Blair with his preparation of a peace blueprint - has come at a time of enormous delicacy in the peace process.

Mowlam is widely credited with heading off an imminent return to violence by loyalist groups, who had accused Britain of favoring Sinn Fein and the IRA in its quest for peace.

Even so, in a reminder of the knife-edge character of the current negotiations, over the weekend loyalist terrorists murdered a distant relative of Adams, in the latest of a series of revenge attacks for the Dec. 27 murder of a loyalist leader inside the Maze.

Looming deadline

By pressing ahead urgently with his new peace plan, Blair is reminding all concerned that the London and Dublin governments have set May as the deadline for a Northern Ireland agreement. If the politicians haven't reached an accord by then, referendums will be held in both parts of Ireland.

Republicans and loyalists, says Irish political analyst Brendan O'Leary, are likely to be attracted by Blair's proposal for a Northern Ireland assembly.

"It would be elected by proportional representation, and this would be intended to ensure that the province's Catholic minority was not swamped by the Protestant majority," he says.

There were reports yesterday, however, that Blair's single-page draft peace formula drew a two-page response from the Irish government stressing the need to maximize north-south contacts.

Still, Blair said over the weekend he was "optimistic" about reaction to the plan. In a TV interview from Tokyo, he said: "It is a curious thing about Northern Ireland, that when things seem terribly bad they may just be about to get better."

Blair's spokesman added, "There is actually substantial agreement on the nature of the shape of an agreement. But the words will be difficult, and it may not be possible."

Influential Northern Ireland politicians, too, remained cautious. Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the moderate, mainly Catholic nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, says he was "made very nervous" by Mowlam's talks with "convicted killers."

Mr. Mallon says such attempts at confidence building can create problems. "If handled insensitively or pushed too hard, they are capable of wrecking the entire peace process," he says.

Giving Blair's peacemaking efforts a boost was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. In Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second largest city, over the weekend Senator Kennedy said there must be no return to violence. "Killing produces only more killing," he declared.

Kennedy added, "A new spirit of hope is gaining momentum. It can banish the fear that blinds. It can conquer the anger that fuels the merchants of violence."

"Equality and mutual respect," he said, were "the twin pillars of peace."

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