N. Ireland told to bite the bullet

Parties have until June 30 to agree on implementing peace accord.

Difficult unfinished business from Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal faces a finish line this week.

Britain and Ireland, with White House backing, have given leaders of the the Protestant and Catholic communities until midnight, June 30, to reach an agreement on which political parties will join a power-sharing self-rule government for Northern Ireland.

The deadline has forced Northern Ireland's politicians to play a long-delayed endgame in their quest for permanent peace. But each side is trying to force the other to blink first.

The deadline seems tight.

"There is, bluntly, no Plan B," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair in an article in the Sunday Mirror newspaper. He and his counterpart from Ireland, Bertie Ahern, are due to meet in Belfast today for renewed talks.

Key issue: IRA weapons

The Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest pro-British party, has refused to allow Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army, into the executive council of Northern Ireland's new assembly until the IRA starts to hand over, or decommission, its weapons.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams maintains that last year's Good Friday peace accord does not require republican paramilitary groups to decommission before his party joins the devolved government.

London and Dublin insist that the alternative to a meeting of minds is a future marred by political and religious acrimony and - almost certainly - a return to the terrorism that has racked the British-ruled province for nearly 30 years.

On Friday, Blair set the clock ticking for a final showdown with an article in the London Times calling on both sides to give ground. Crucially, he suggested that Sinn Fein should be allowed to join the executive council if the IRA promised to decommission its weapons and explosives.

The proposal initially met with fierce rejection from Protestant leaders. But yesterday, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble appeared to show signs of flexibility.

"I want to see the leaders of the republican movement across the table tell the rest of us that they accept that they have an obligation to decommission all paramilitary weapons by May 2000," Mr. Trimble said in a BBC interview, adding that he would accept "No ifs, no buts, no excuses."

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said over the weekend that the party was trying to persuade the IRA to hand over arms, "But there is no requirement on the IRA to make a decision this week."

In reality, says Northern Ireland analyst David McKittrick, "everything now centers on finding a formula for the timing of decommissioning." Wednesday's deadline is crucial because July will see the peak of the annual Protestant marching season, which is often marked by sectarian violence.

In a bid to make the compromise deal more palatable to sworn enemies, Blair and Mr. Ahern have asked Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the arms decommissioning body set up under the accord, to extract from the parties clear-cut commitments to give up and destroy terrorist arms.

On Tuesday, General de Chastelain is expected to announce the results of his written inquiries.

Simultaneously, despite hard-line public statements from their leaders, the parties have been engaged in secret talks aimed at avoiding a total breakdown of the peace process. At the insistence of Blair and Ahern, the leaders focused on three basic principles that London and Dublin claim all the parties have agreed to. The principles are:

*The need for an executive body exercising devolved powers.

*The need to decommission all paramilitary arms by May of next year.

*Decommissioning to be carried out in a manner determined by de Chastelain.

Outsider's role

By bringing de Chastelain to center stage on the issue, Blair and Ahern are using one of their last available heavy-duty levers on the political parties.

The general has been at great pains until now to avoid getting embroiled in the public politics of the arms issue.

But it was reported yesterday in the London Observer that when he makes public the results of his questioning, he will say Sinn Fein is ready to promise decommissioning of IRA weapons by next May. A statement to that effect would carry great authority. It would also intensify pressure on Trimble, who is trying to fend off a possible leadership challenge from within his own party.

Officials in London and Dublin say Blair and Ahern are reminding both sides that after they reached last year's peace agreement, more than two-thirds of Northern Ireland's voters threw their support behind it.

That theme was repeated on Saturday by President Clinton. He told a press conference: "I hope and pray the Good Friday agreement will be saved. The differences [between the parties], though they are profound, are as nothing compared to the cost of losing it."

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