- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2004

BELFAST — President Bush lent his weight yesterday to a final push for reviving power-sharing in Northern Ireland, telling the province’s Protestant leader to do his best to cut a deal with his longtime Catholic enemies.

Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party represents most of Northern Ireland’s British Protestant majority, received a telephone call from Mr. Bush just before Mr. Paisley and his senior aides began to discuss the latest draft of a confidential British-Irish blueprint for compromise.

Mr. Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch that he called Mr. Paisley to try to nudge the peace process forward. He said he had sought to get the two sides “to the table to get a deal done, to close the agreement they’ve been working on for quite a while.”

The president added that he would do “anything I can do to help to keep the process moving forward.”

Mr. Paisley — a stridently anti-Catholic evangelist who has spent decades destroying Protestant rivals who dared compromise — said he told Mr. Bush he wanted to reach agreement with Sinn Fein, the political face of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), but stressed that “any deal must be fair.”

“I reminded the president of the fact that he would not have terrorists in his government, and that we must be satisfied that IRA terrorism is over and cannot return,” said Mr. Paisley, 78.

Mr. Bush’s telephone diplomacy, which included a similar call to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, was reminiscent of the interventions made by Mr. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, in the hours leading up to Northern Ireland’s landmark Good Friday peace pact of 1998.

That U.S.-brokered deal has achieved or advanced dozens of goals designed to end a 35-year conflict over this British territory that has claimed 3,600 lives. But its core objective — sustaining a stable, joint Catholic-Protestant administration — has proved impossible to date.

That could change in the next week of expected high-pressure negotiations, particularly within the ranks of both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

Their twin election triumphs last year at the expense of the province’s moderate parties appeared to dash hopes of reviving power-sharing. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, proved unrelenting in pressing the polar opposites toward a deal.

“This is a very crucial weekend in the peace process,” said Mr. Ahern, who signed off late Thursday on a redrafted Anglo-Irish power-sharing formula after a long discussion with Mr. Blair.

Mr. Ahern conceded the new plan “isn’t perfect for everybody because that isn’t possible,” and added: “I wish the parties well. They’ve very big decisions.”

Mr. Ahern said he expected a verdict from both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists early next week, followed, possibly, by a statement from the outlawed IRA.

Although the new plan has remained secret, it reportedly includes an expectation that the IRA would fully disarm by Christmas — and, for the first time, allow Catholic and Protestant clergymen to witness the previously secretive process of scrapping arms.

Mr. Adams, a 56-year-old who reputedly has been an IRA commander for more than three decades, sounded a cautious note, emphasizing he would need to read the latest plan in detail over the weekend. “There’s still some work to be done,” he said, declining to elaborate.

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