Thursday, Mar 06, 2003
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By Hasan Suroor
The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, spent two days in Belfast trying to persuade the two sides to resolve their differences but threw up their hands late Tuesday night as no accord seemed in sight despite official claims that some progress had been made.
The main sticking point remained the terms and time-frame of IRA decommissioning with the Unionists insisting on visible destruction of weapons by IRA within a specific time limit.
They also demanded that any agreement must provide for sanctions against Sinn Fein if the IRA, which is its armed wing, does not deliver on decommissioning.
The Republicans have indicated the IRA's willingness to make a bold gesture on decommissioning but they are opposed to the idea of sanctions. There is also opposition to the Unionist demand that any act of decommissioning should be filmed. The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who is credited with having persuaded the IRA to agree to disarm, ruled out agreeing to sanctions.
``We will accept no sanctions or any diminution of rights of many thousands of people who have made our party the largest nationalist party in the six counties,'' he said.
David Trimble, leader of the main Unionist group, the Ulster Unionist Party, insisted that there was no question of his party returning to power-sharing with Sinn Fein until IRA disarmed completely. "No promises this time, it's got to be action and then we'll decide our response,'' he said.
Despite the continuing gulf in the republican-unionist positions, the official line was that the "way forward'' was still open. Mr. Blair said a basis for a breakthrough had been reached, and he was hopeful of a positive outcome in the next few weeks.
``We are through negotiating, we believe we have got a good way forward. We believe that the proposals, we have, offer that lasting and durable way forward,'' he said.
Over the following weeks, the political parties would study a set of proposals given to them by Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern. These include a series of concessions which the British Government is willing to make to the republicans in exchange for IRA decommissioning.
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