Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair conduct talks at Hillsborough Castle on March 3, 2003, in the latest bid to salvage the floundering Good Friday Agreement. The negotiations last eight hours.
This meeting is very important, as it is Tony Blair’s last chance at intensive negotiation before his attention is totally caught up in the Iraq War. Progress cannot afford to slip further as the Stormont Assembly election has to be formally declared by March 21 if it is to take place as scheduled on May 1.
David Trimble, representing the unionists, has said the Irish Republican Army (IRA) must “go out of business” before his party will re-enter a coalition government with Sinn Fein. In late 2002, he uses the word “disbandment” but he is now careful to avoid being overly prescriptive.
He wants visible, verifiable decommissioning to restore unionist confidence, severely damaged by the IRA spy ring allegations which led to the collapse of devolution in October 2002. Trimble is also urging sanctions to punish republican politicians if the Provisionals renege.
The key demands of the republicans are demilitarisation, guarantees that unionists cannot pull down the Stormont Assembly again, devolution of policing and criminal justice, further police reforms, and a dispensation for 30-40 fugitive IRA members to go back to Northern Ireland without prosecution.
Republicans insist discussions must not revolve around getting rid of the IRA. They prefer to interpret the prime minister’s talk of “acts of completion” as an admission of failure to implement his obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, shortcomings they outlined in a 57-page dossier handed in to Downing Street.
Tony Blair claims he does not want to get involved in a bartering game – but in fact the government is prepared make major moves in return for IRA concessions. The prime minister is offering a radical three-year plan to withdraw 5,000 of the 13,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and tear down a large number of border watchtowers and military bases.
Sinn Fein wants written guarantees on troop withdrawal and police reform, criminal justice and on-the-run terrorists. But important details need ironing out.
Policing and the return of fugitive paramilitaries are extremely sensitive issues for both republicans and unionists. A balance must be struck so that on-the-runs, mostly republican, are freed on licence after some sort of judicial process but not given amnesty, unacceptable to unionists.
Government sources claim Sinn Fein is poised to join the policing board, endorsing the police service for the first time, but this too will require delicate handling to ensure unionists don’t walk away.
One British government source states, “Everybody knows what has to be done, the question is if the will is there to achieve it. One of the problems is no one is absolutely clear what the IRA is prepared to do.”