It's crunch time in the bid to win peace in Northern Ireland.
Former US Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of the peace process, brought two years of often bitter negotiations to a climax in the early hours of April 7 by handing the participating parties copies of a blueprint for peace.
He gave pro-British Unionists, Catholic nationalists, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), 72 hours to reach agreement on a trio of contentious issues that lie at the root of decades of violence and mutual suspicion.
Urging the parties not to leak or discuss the peace blueprint in public, Mr. Mitchell said, "Lives and deaths are at stake here. It would be incredible, dismaying, and deeply disturbing to me if anyone involved in this process feels that they can somehow gain an advantage by engaging in that kind of action.
"There are still serious differences to be resolved. An historic period of intensive negotiation now lies ahead of us," he said, adding with a smile, "I hope to be back home for Easter."
Despite Mitchell's injunction to keep the details under wraps, sources close to the negotiations confirmed that he was pressing them to make compromises on three linked agenda items:
* Creation of new governmental institutions for Northern Ireland, currently under direct rule from London. Most nationalists want an elected assembly based on power sharing between the two communities and headed by a cabinet wielding substantial powers. Unionists want a government of committees reflecting their majority position in the province and giving the British government a final say on major issues. Sinn Fein is not pressing for an assembly.
* Cross-border cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland in areas such as transport, agriculture, and the environment. Nationalists and Sinn Fein want a North-South council with ministers from Dublin and Belfast and power to make decisions. Unionists, fearing that a council might be the starting point of a trend toward a united Ireland, want its powers to be strictly limited and subject to the proposed Belfast assembly and the Dublin parliament. Unionists also say Dublin must drop its constitutional claims to Northern Ireland.
* A new treaty between Britain and Ireland. Unionists want a "Council of the Isles," with representatives from Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. They say this would underline their province's continuing close ties to Britain. Nationalists and Sinn Fein argue that such a council is unnecessary and would end up being a mere talking shop.
With the 65-page document before them, the parties resumed negotiations April 7 inside the closed doors of Belfast's Stormont Castle. Mitchell and the London and Dublin governments stepped up pressure on them to bury their differences.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, were said to be planning to travel to Belfast in an effort to make agreement possible by the deadline.
Political sources in Belfast say the Mitchell blueprint does not offer a fully formulated draft agreement. Instead it identifies areas of agreement and pinpoints other areas where compromise seems likely or possible. One source says the document contained "options, proposals, and personal comments by the chairman." Mitchell said it was "predominantly a synthesis of the parties themselves."
A feature of the talks in the run-up to release of the plan was the reluctance of the parties to suggest that agreement was beyond their grasp. This appeared to be because no one wished to be held responsible for a collapse of the peace bid.
In the Unionist camp there appeared to strong reservations, however. Jeffrey Donaldson, an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) member of the British Parliament, said April 6 that nationalist demands for a strong cross-border council would be "20 bridges too far." Party leader David Trimble was equally negative in a statement April 7, saying that "the greater number of people in Northern Ireland" would not approve of Mitchell's plans.
Gary McMichael, leader of the small and radical Ulster Democratic Party, which has links to pro-British paramilitary groups, said: "The big question is going to be whether we can close the gap between Unionism and nationalism. I am not sure we can, but neither is it impossible."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was more hopeful of an agreement, saying, "It's like stew. You can have all the right ingredients, but you have to cook it properly."
The exact shape of any deal was impossible to predict due to the complexity of the issues. A British official close to the talks says, "What is needed is not a victory for one side or another, but a draw that everyone can live with. That in itself would be a victory."