The British Prime Minister, engaging in international shuttle diplomacy (like Henry Kissinger once did for the USA) stopped off for a couple of days, March 3rd/4th, and along with Taoiseach Ahern met the leaders of pro-agreement political parties in Belfast in intense detailed discussions on the much needed further steps required for the full implementation of that Agreement.
During the almost continuous sessions (almost 30 hours) used to deal with the 28 page document setting out the points of all the elements still to be implemented, policing, decommissioning, the Bill of Rights etc. he accepted that not only did the parties that had signed up to the Belfast Agreement have responsibilities but so also did his government.
The discussions, it is said, were wide ranging but though explored in depth it was not possible for the participants to come to a conclusive consensus. The party leaders will be reporting to their respective organisations and returning in two or three weeks time when the two governments will be presenting specific proposals (presumably based on opinions expressed in the early March meetings) which, if they are found acceptable or suitably amended, could effect the lifting of the suspensions of the Assembly and the Power Sharing Executive.
However, statements made by the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, calling once again for a declaration from Republicans ’ that the war is over’ seems to be an inflexible approach, suggesting that, unless it is made, he and his party will still not participate in power sharing government.
Trimble has also said that, along with such a declaration, some publicly or recorded significant actual arms destruction, putting them beyond use, is required to restore trust among Unionists that the political one is the sole route to be followed.
The problem is still that he knows full well, as do the general public, how difficult it has been for Sinn Féin to bring Republicans and the IRA along this path and that he holds his own party together by this stance and thinks it avoids being overtaken by the competitor Democratic Unionist Party and his own dissidents.
All the parties, both Pro and Anti, are jockeying for position, the Pros hoping that a settlement might be reached which could be hailed as a success upon which to launch their campaign in the election, which has been postponed from May 1st to May 29th.
In an answer in the Commons at his Question Time, March 5th, Prime Minister Blair said that there would not be a review of the Agreement and that the proposals which he would bring to the next meeting of the parties were solely to do with its implementation and would require actions from all sides, including the government.
Preoccupied as he is with the Iraqi question it is hard to see how he can achieve success in the Northern Ireland problem, even in the extended period allowed - perhaps up to the anniversary date of the signing of the Good Friday Accord, April 10th 1998.
There was on that occasion, in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, time for a referendum on the Agreement, followed by the Assembly election before the Orange Marching Season was in full swing.
In my view the 29th May is about the last date for the election to avoid running into the usual tensions associated with these annual events, so time is quite short for a settlement to be accomplished.
Indeed, even if the election remains scheduled for that date we will still have to get through the Easter Parades of both communities which will invoke memories and tensions which will be exacerbated if progress has not been made to enable a return to devolved government.
The alternatives aren’ t particularly attractive. To go ahead with the election, even failing a settlement, as I outlined in an earlier article, with the parties campaigning on where they stand in respect of the Agreement and then assessing the position again post election. The result might then precipitate a review of the Agreement. On the other hand, a further postponement of the election to midSeptember with a continuation of Direct Rule and legislation covering the outstanding issues and the government’ s commitments to the Belfast Agreement on the statute book, the possibilities for a settlement might be improved.
However, overshadowed by the international events and along with the possibility of all the impending elections being postponed the situation may have to await the start and/or conclusion of the war before settlement.
©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, South Wales.
Samuel H. Boyd