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16 December 2004 Edition

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Seven days later

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

The disappointment surrounding the breakdown of last week's talks was followed by a week of ups and downs for republicans.

On Thursday, the IRA released the statement, through An Phoblacht, that everyone was waiting for. It proved that the army was prepared to move in an unprecedented way to help the peace process, but reiterated the position that the issue of photographic evidence of disarmament was always completely out of the question.

Following this, Sinn Féin National Chair Mitchel McLaughlin said the party had stretched itself to the limit to try to bring about agreement.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland programme, McLaughlin described the photo issue as "a bridge too far". He also called for Paisley to meet with Sinn Féin, saying the deal had stalled because of a lack of communication between the two parties, mainly due to the DUP's refusal to hold face-to-face talks.

Later that day, 26-County Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern announced that he and Northern Secretary Paul Murphy would meet all the North's parties in the next week to try to find common ground.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was heckled in the Dáil as he praised the work of the leaderships of Sinn Féin and the IRA for their contribution to the peace process.

Ahern doublespeak

On Sunday, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern called on the IRA to make a clear statement on ending illegal activity, claiming the statement in An Phoblacht had only dealt with paramilitary activity. In response, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said he believed the IRA's statement was clear. He said it made it plain that the IRA's instructions to members would be around ensuring noone would be involved in any activity which might endanger the new agreement.

On Monday, the Taoiseach changed tack when, after a meeting with a Sinn Féin delegation, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, in Dublin, he said that the issue of photos was "unworkable".

Later that day, Paisley threatened to cut all ties with the Dublin Government if Ahern did not retract the statement.

Ahern buckled, saying that he had not stated a personal opinion, but had actually been projecting the Sinn Féin position. In a nine-minute phone call to the DUP leader that night, he offered a full apology.

Following a meeting with Blair in Downing Street on Tuesday, a still unsatisfied Paisley called for the Taoiseach to make a full apology in the Dáil that Wednesday, after he had held a meeting with Blair in Downing Street.

A government spokeswoman said Ahern would use the debate on the peace process to clarify the government's position but he would not be directly apologising to the hardline unionist leader.

But on Wednesday, Ahern told the Dáil that he believed the governments' proposals over photographs continued "to represent a fair and reasonable judgment".

While the Dáil debate was taking place, NIO Secretary Paul Murphy and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern were holding discussions with the parties at Hillsborough in County Down.

US Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss was also at Hillsborough holding meetings with the parties.

Republicans had met Reiss on Tuesday night at one of his first engagements in a two-day visit.

He was also due to hold talks with Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane's widow Geraldine, and with representatives of the Orange Order.

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