LONDON, Feb. 13 (UPI) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair has given all sides involved in Northern Ireland’s problems less than three weeks to resolve the latest crisis before the threat of impending war in Iraq forces it onto a political backburner.
In the wake of a meeting with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, in Belfast, Blair set a deadline of March 3 to resolve the deadlock that has plagued the process since the suspension of the province’s assembly four months ago over discovery of an alleged spy ring involving the Irish Republican Army.
Blair told journalists what he wants from republicans, and particularly the IRA, by that time are significant “acts of completion” — a phrase that political analysts said meant an affirmation by the IRA it was ready to lay down its weapons and cease “military activities.”
“In the next few weeks,” Blair said, “we will find out what these acts of completion are and what they mean.”
Sources close to the government said London wants to get the Northern Ireland peace process back on track by the early March date because the pressures from what is looking increasingly like war in Iraq will delay any prospect of resolving the political impasse in the province for months.
Blair conceded that progress on the Northern Ireland imbroglio was “going to be difficult” but he and Ahern “are determined to try and make that progress, and make it as quickly as possible.”
The current crisis was triggered last fall when Blair, on his last previous visit to Belfast, indicated he was fed up with the “inch-by-inch” negotiations that had typified the peace talks and demanded the IRA end its military activities, including surrendering its arms.
Matters came to a head with the discovery of what London described as an IRA spy ring operating from the office of Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, targeting politicians and scores of security personnel, revelations that finally prompted Blair’s government to suspend the province’s power-sharing assembly Oct. 14.
After Blair laid down his latest deadline for an end to the deadlock, David Ervine of the loyalist Progressive Unionist party told journalists “it is clear from the dialogue the prime minister used to us that it is ‘game on,’ and he seems to think it can be done in a very short timeframe.”
But other key players, including Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, were skeptical. Trimble said he saw no evidence of any “dramatic moves” coming from the IRA or other paramilitary operating in the province that warranted immediate hopes of an early end to the impasse.
Sources close to the situation said they anticipated the time between now and March 3 would probably see little action in public but much movement behind the scenes, centered on secret talks to try to cobble together a workable compromise.
Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, offered a small ray of hope recently when it hinted it could shift its position if the Blair government agreed to more police reforms in Northern Ireland and the scaling down of British army watchtowers in the province.
Martin McGuinness, a leading spokesman for Sinn Fein, said that what republicans wanted to hear was “a different tune being sung — and if that is the case, I think all of us will be able to rise to that challenge.”