Final Protestant-Catholic accord hits roadblock

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- It was a photo that foiled a yearlong bid to craft a final Protestant-Catholic power-sharing accord for Northern Ireland, although British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on Wednesday held out hope that public pressure may yet push the two sides to a settlement.

The predominately Protestant Democratic Unionist Party and the nationalist Sinn Fein party have reached a deadlock on a demand by the DUP that the outlawed Irish Republican Army be photographed turning over its arms as part of any agreement, the two prime ministers confirmed at a news conference here.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, said the nationalist side would not submit to what he deemed calculated "humiliation," while the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the British-loyalist DUP, thundered that the IRA "murderers" still have not agreed to fully disarm.

The disappointed Blair and Ahern had hoped to announce an agreement that would end all paramilitary activity and allow the formation of a Northern Ireland government in which the arch-enemies in the Northern Ireland conflict, the DUP and Sinn Fein, would share leadership.

The lingering gulf between the two sides was illustrated by Paisley's uncompromising tone to reporters Wednesday.

"I'm not withdrawing anything I've said about the bloodthirsty monsters of the IRA," he said. "Because they are in political talks doesn't give them deliverance from their past sins. They've got to face up to it, they have brought murder and mayhem to this country."

The issue of photographing the IRA's turnover of arms is sensitive to Sinn Fein because, throughout the talks, the organization has sought to avoid anything that smacks of surrender. It considers its soldiers to be a victorious freedom-fighting army that is leading the Catholic Irish away from domination and second-class status they have endured for centuries from Britain and pro-British unionists.

Instead of using the word surrender, the agreement speaks of "decommissioning" and putting weapons "beyond use." Sinn Fein's attitude against photography has only hardened in recent weeks since Paisley declared to supporters that the IRA deserved to be covered in "sack cloth and ashes" for its past "sins." "What's holding (an agreement) up? ... The demand for a process of humiliation," Adams said Wednesday.

In spite of the glum remarks, however, it was clear that the two sides had made great strides toward a joint government in Northern Ireland in the last two years.

Sinn Fein has agreed in principle to a full and final disarmament, verified by a Canadian general and clergymen for each side, to renounce violence and to take part in new policing arrangements for the British province.

The DUP has agreed to a gradual withdrawal of British troops from the province and a formula that would require it to head a new executive committee with a second minister from Sinn Fein.

That the two parties would become, in effect, governing coalition partners is a huge step considering that leaders of the two parties have never sat down in the same room.

Although political violence has eased in the six years since the historic Good Friday Agreement, the vision of self-government for Northern Ireland has foundered for the past two years amid DUP charges that the IRA continued to engage in paramilitary activities and failed to disarm.

Blair and Ahern have tried to nail down a final settlement ever since they were elected to their respective offices. Violence between Protestants and Catholic paramilitary groups claimed an estimated 3,600 lives in recent decades.

In an unusual step meant to ratchet up public demands on the politicians to get the job done, the prime ministers on Wednesday presented a 20-page proposed agreement that included all the areas in which the sides agreed, and the one disputed article involving the "transparency" of the planned decommissioning of IRA arms.

On the streets of Belfast, a city that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years in spite of the political impasse, residents voiced disappointment but not surprise that no deal had been reached.

"Both sides are like children and should have their heads knocked together," said a government employee who gave only her first name, Emily. Shopping on Sandy Row, a unionist area, she said that she agreed with Paisley's point that Protestants needed incontrovertible proof that the IRA finally is giving up its weapons.

"I've seen too much over the last 30 years," she said.

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Tommy Brown, a 74-year-old retired shipyard worker, waved a dismissive hand as he mocked both sides.

"All you hear is talk, talk, talk," he said. "It's like a broken record."

On Falls Road, in the heart of hardscrabble West Belfast's Irish nationalist community, Marie McDonnell said she was not surprised that the deal fell through.

"I expected this," McDonnell said while drinking tea with a friend in the Cavendish coffee shop. "Nothing will ever change, not with Paisley and his gang. They all think the same way."

McDonnell, whose brother-in-law, Joe McDonnell, was one of 10 hunger strikers to die at the Maze Prison in 1981, said a provincial government is not essential anyway.

"This place has progressed a lot without the help of a government," she said. "There's a community here, and we just get on with it ourselves."

But Lenil Black, a 30-year-old physician, called the failure "heartbreaking." "People here are afraid that if we don't go forward, that will be the end of progress, that if there's no deal, the whole process will stop," he said.

Special correspondent Ron DePasquale in Belfast contributed to this report.


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