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6 March 2003 Edition

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Work in progress

After 48 hours of intense negotiations at Hillsborough, Sinn Féin has succeeded in making substantial progress on all of the issues on which it has been pressing the British government, but the message from the republican leadership was that much remains to be thrashed out.

The current phase of negotiations commenced in December and picked up pace in January, taking on intense proportions two weeks ago. A 15-hour negotiation session took place in Belfast on 20 February, followed by two days of talks in London and one in Dublin. These negotiations culminated in the discussions in Hillsborough on Monday and Tuesday.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams says the party is "pleased with the progress that has been made" this week, but he stressed that there is more negotiating to be done.

New legislation on policing and criminal justice, demilitarisation, equality, human rights and the Irish language were all dealt with in the talks, with developments made in most areas. Progress was also made on details of policing and criminal justice that do not require legislation.

Adams said that despite these developments, however, problems remain. "There are still gaps on important issues and more discussions are needed," he said."This is a work in progress."

Despite the impression given by the governments that negotiations were finished and it was now up to the parties, the Sinn Féin leader stressed that for republicans, negotiations are far from over and there will be continuing engagement with both governments and the unionists.

Gerry Adams was in contact with the governments on Wednesday, while Martin McGuinness met with the Ulster Unionists on Wednesday afternoon.

On Tuesday evening, the governments had intended to host a round table discussion at Hillsborough and leave after a 5.45pm press conference, but by 5pm, the governments and Sinn Féin were still gridlocked.

There are five main issues that remain to be satisfactorily resolved between the governments and Sinn Féin. The first is the newly introduced issue of sanctions. Sinn Féin has firmly rejected such an imposition as the party believes it is aimed at republicans.

Sinn Féin's talks with unionists revolve around the need for future stability and sustainability of the institutions. Sinn Féin is seeking clear and unambiguous commitments from the Ulster Unionists. As one republican source put it, "this process has been like Humpty Dumpty for the last five years, spending more time on the ground than on the wall. We cannot have a deal emerge that risks perpetuating that situation." And, of course, sanctions provide unionists with the means to do exactly that.

"There has been a decision by the governments to bring in sanctions which would clearly be aimed at Sinn Féin. We have told them that this is entirely unacceptable," said Adams.

The second major issue that remains to be resolved is equality, with Sinn Féin seeking timeframed measures for progress.

The third is policing, and here there are three main sticking points: representativeness, that is how quickly and how many republicans and nationalists will be able to join to make the force representative of the communities it serves; plastic bullets; and a range of matters relating to Special Branch.

Progress also needs to be made on demilitarisation, while the fifth major issue is Irish language funding. On that, Bairbre de Brún has managed to secure a commitment from the Dublin government for funding.

Also on Wednesday, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Sinn Féin's group leader in the Dáil and spokesperson on the peace process, called for a debate on the latest developments and expressed his disappointment at the Dublin government's support of the unionist and British demand for sanctions.

For now, however, despite significant progress, the process remains stalled, with Assembly elections put back a month and still no restoration of the institutions.


Hillsborough talks adjourned and election delayed


The media had been full of it. David Trimble no longer flanked by UUP dissidents, republican veteran Joe Cahill quietly arriving, Gerry and Martin engrossed in conversation, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair sharing a joke. All the speculation was built around a few pertinent photographs and too many idle hours for journalists standing outside in the bitter winds of a northern spring.

The talks in Hillsborough began early on Monday morning, Ahern arriving just too early to be greeted by the British Prime Minister, who skipped up the castle steps moments later full of grins and witticisms for the prompt Irish Taoiseach. Smiles for the cameras but few words. Journalists, forced to rely on governmental and party statements of optimism and the promise of progress, filled their copy with the usual speculation.

While the Irish News was focusing on "bridging the gaps" to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Newsletter was predictably preoccupied with maintaining the unionist veto. "Unionist consent is something the [British] Prime Minister and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern must keep uppermost in their minds."

Speaking at the weekend in South Armagh, Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, had described the Hillsborough talks as "absolutely critical to the future of the entire island". And he had a message to the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party: "We say there is an opportunity here to move forward."

David Trimble had told Saturday's meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council: "We want the Assembly back." Significantly, party supporters rather than hard line anti-Agreement elements had flanked Trimble. Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside were left to snipe from the sidelines. Trimble was re-elected as UUP leader unchallenged but proposals to transfer powers from the 860-strong council to the 120-strong party executive failed.

Earlier criticism of Trimble's handling of the peace process by the US National Committee on Foreign Policy had been dismissed by UUP spokespersons, but privately they admitted Trimble had been rattled. The US think tank had been 'disappointed' by Trimble's performance; the UUP leader had failed to stand up for the Good Friday Agreement, said committee chairperson Bill Flynn.

Dr George Schwab, the committee's president, went even further, accusing Trimble of destabilising the Agreement by "constantly issuing ultimatums" which went "far beyond what was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement".

But the anticipated political demise of the UUP leader predicted by the US committee appeared a little premature. Irish Times columnist Frank Millar suggested that electoral changes could assist Trimble in tackling the anti-Agreement dissidents within his own party.

As with all parties in the North, the UUP has registered its name, logo, description and the name of its 'nominating officer' with the Electoral Commission. Registered as the nominating officer, Trimble can select and deselect candidates in any forthcoming elections.

In the balance, Trimble believed a deal was possible but if it wasnít, republicans, not unionists, would be seen to be the problem. "We have tried, tried and tried again to wean republicans from violence," said Trimble, in the offensive tone he appears to feel he must adopt when speaking to his own supporters.

"If we fail again the world will know that republicans, not unionists, have blocked the path to peace, blighted hopes for the future, frustrated the Agreement. The onus is on them," Trimble told party members.

Meanwhile at Hillsborough, a joint document had been drawn up by the British and Irish governments, the media was told, which could be presented later. A deal was possible a British 'insider' was reported as saying.

"Positive messages are coming from Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionists and all the main players. While we don't underestimate the problems, we believe the gaps can be bridged," said the British official.

Inside Hillsborough, party delegates were allotted rooms as a series of bilateral meetings began. With Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Women's Coalition assigned one corridor and the unionist parties another, there was no chance of any informal bartering.

Draft documents presented by the governments were monitored and collected after sessions by officials. And there was to be no conferring during meal breaks either, with soup and sandwiches delivered separately to every party present.

Outside Hillsborough gates, the media waited, deadlines for press announcements came and went until it was finally confirmed that the talks would be reconvened on Tuesday morning for an extra, unscheduled day.

Tuesday morning editions of the Irish News and Irish Times reported 'confident' leaders and a new deal possible but for the Belfast Newsletter 'hopes' were already 'on hold'.

"The bones of a political deal are being put together which could lead to total implementation of the Good Friday Agreement," said William Graham of the Irish News.

The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister are "still confident that a deal can be brokered", wrote Gerry Moriarty of the Irish Times. Ahern was "optimistic" and the talks were resuming "to ensure the greatest level of progress and mutual understanding by all the parties", he said.

"Make or break talks to save the peace process will fail if tough sanctions are not installed to guard against future IRA activity," the Newsletter reported Trimble as saying. "We will be back tomorrow," Trimble had told the Newsletter on Monday night, and taking a swipe at the DUP, added "as always we have made sure the unionist voice is heard".

Writing in the Sunday Tribune, Susan McKay had already identified unionist demands for 'sanctions' as untenable. "The trouble with this scenario is that Trimble, like other unionists, is willing to regard even the suggestion of IRA activity as evidence," said McKay.

For northern nationalists the unionist demand is not just unworkable, it is downright hypocritical, following over two years of sustained unionist paramilitary violence - a campaign that unionist politicians like David Trimble explained away while simultaneously using it as a vehicle to pursue a political agenda shared with violent unionism.

Yet despite this, the British government has colluded in letting unionist politicians off the hook, in his recent 'fork in the road' speech, Tony Blair dismissed unionist paramilitary violence as 'criminal', as a means to absolve unionist politicians of all responsibility.

In stark contrast, republicans have shown a clear willingness to face up to all their responsibilities in the collective project of making politics work. But the introductions of sanctions designed specifically as a mechanism to exclude Sinn Féin will create a two-tier electorate in which nationalist voters count for less.

"There is no way we will accept sanctions," said Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly. "Sinn Féin's electoral mandate must be respected in line with that of other parties."

"We will not accept any diminution of the rights of those many thousands of people who have made our party the largest nationalist party in the North," said Mitchel McLaughlin.

Outside Hillsborough's gates for a second day, the media waited for the promised 'breakthrough'. Inside, the talks were tortuous. Outside, the weather was deteriorating as rapidly as relations between some of the parties. It was announced that Tony Blair had cancelled his engagements in London, including a scheduled meeting with the Russian Foreign Secretary. A deal, it was assumed, must be tantalisingly close.

But as night fell, there was less talk of a deal and more of "a shared understanding". A great deal of work had been achieved but unionist insistence on the issue of 'sanctions' dashed any hope of completing the circle.

Shortly after 7pm, David Trimble abandoned his party's negotiating team and left Hillsborough. For a British Prime Minister who had cancelled his engagements, it was at best an ill-mannered snub. Trimble may have imagined his early departure fed a hardline unionist image, but for many people it was simply Trimble, the petulant child, leaving in a huff.

The talks adjourned shortly after midnight after two days of intensive talks. Elections, scheduled for 1 May, would be delayed for a further four weeks to enable parties to consult their members.

"Our purpose in doing so is to make sure that we get a lasting and durable settlement based on the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, the full implementation of it in order to provide people in Northern Ireland with the peaceful and prosperous future we want to see," said Tony Blair.

Matters should be considered in the round, said Bertie Ahern. At the forthcoming elections, parties who took risks for peace needed to show that they could work together for a better future, the Taoiseach said.

The sanctions issue was a very large obstacle, said Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly, designed to put Sinn Féin out of the Assembly. "We will not have it."


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