Struggle to shore up leaky Northern Ireland peace accord

On Sunday, conflicting sides were given six more weeks to come to agreement.

With the IRA poised to withdraw its offer to put its arms "completely and verifiably" beyond use, and Ulster Unionists hardening their position on the same issue, the prognosis for the Northern Ireland peace process might appear bleak.

Six weeks remain to rescue the process from a full-scale crisis and bridge the gulf between those in Northern Ireland who identify themselves as Irish (republicans) and those who say they are British (unionists).

The British government reinstated the Belfast administration at midnight Saturday after a 24-hour suspension and gave the conflicting parties six weeks to break their deadlock.

The British and Irish governments clearly have a mountain to climb if they are to save the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. But despite the latest setback, John Reid, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told BBC television that peace is "tantalizingly close" and "within our grasp."

"Over the next six weeks, I fully intend to address the questions which some people have said are stumbling blocks ...," Mr. Reid says. "We should use that time productively."

But Martin McGuinness, lead negotiator for Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, said disarmament measures put forward by the paramilitary group may have been jeopardized by the temporary suspension of the government.

The main unionist bone of contention is the decommissioning of IRA weapons. The unionists are demanding a timetable and further details on the IRA's offer to lay down weapons.

Republicans want more radical reform of what they consider a discredited police force, the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and they say the IRA has kept its commitments on arms.

The British government bought more time with its move Saturday.

But the cost, observers here say, will be Sinn Fein's anger and the IRA's temporary withdrawal from the decommissioning process. Among the headlines in newspapers Sunday: "IRA to revoke peace offer" and "IRA guns crisis looms."

The critical questions will be what the parties manage to agree to in the next six weeks and if it will be enough to save the peace process from a deepening crisis.

There are already signs of a hardening of positions. With Mr. Trimble away from home on holiday, the pace is being set by Jeffrey Donaldson, a resolute opponent of the compromise Good Friday Agreement.

He now says that it will not be sufficient for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) to verify the putting of IRA arms "beyond use." A "trusted member" of the UUP will have to be present, too.

There are also questions about reforming the RUC, always the hottest of hot political potatoes. Nationalists want far greater public accountability and assurances that the new force will be imbued with a "human rights culture" and devoid of British royal symbols in its uniform and in police stations.

One proposal for police accountability would establish community oversight through policing- partnership boards. Unionists are angry over plans to allow former paramilitary prisoners to sit on such boards. They also oppose London/Dublin proposals for an amnesty for paramilitaries still "on the run."

The Belfast government was formed under the Good Friday accord, which sought to end the decades of sectarian conflict by sharing power between the unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the republicans, who say the province should be united with the Irish Republic.

The current crisis began when David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, refused to seek re-election as First Minister. He resigned on July 1 as head of the state's assembly because of the IRA's refusal to give up its guns.

Almost 3,500 people have died here in the 30-year conflict that appears so close to ending.

In the words of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, the peace process stands today at the crossroads, with talks between now and mid-September to prevent a major crisis that would undermine the Sinn Fein leadership's strategy, perhaps fatally.

Although, in the short-term, in anger over the British government's decision to suspend the democratic institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement - the IRA may withdraw its latest offer on arms, most observers here believe it will be reinstated, given the right political context.

The biggest unanswered question is whether the Ulster Unionist Party, when the time comes to make a choice between the Agreement and only partial satisfaction on decommissioning of arms, will choose to ditch the entire deal and seek its renegotiation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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