Blair Offers N. Ireland Strategy
Jun. 25, 1999
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Hours ahead of critical negotiations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday laid out his new strategy for breaking the deadlock that has thrown the Northern Ireland peace accord into crisis.
In a detailed column in The Times newspaper, Blair said that a new Protestant-Catholic government for Northern Ireland _ the central but long-stymied goal of the accord _ would depend on the outlawed Irish Republican Army committing itself to a fixed timetable of disarmament.
Blair, who is scheduled to meet Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in London before they both fly to Belfast to push together for compromise, has set next Wednesday as a final deadline to get the government formed.
The province's major British Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, has refused to accept the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party as government partners unless the IRA drops its blanket refusal to disarm.
``Once again, we face into the abyss. Somehow, we must pull back,'' Blair began his article. ``If the Good Friday agreement collapses, the result is not a better peace, it is no peace at all.''
Blair suggested his government would accept a scenario in which the IRA made a commitment to disarm before the government was formed, but didn't actually start until a fixed point afterward.
Blair said for Sinn Fein to merit two posts in the envisioned 12-member Cabinet-style administration, the party would have to provide ``a clear guarantee'' that the IRA would start disarming ``in accordance with a timetable.'' If the IRA failed to deliver, he said, ``a cast-iron, fail-safe device'' would ensure Sinn Fein's expulsion.
Near the Northern Ireland border, meanwhile, authorities arrested two suspected terrorists Thursday and seized bomb-making equipment.