N. Ireland Peace Draft Readied
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The American chairman of Northern Ireland’s peace talks presented a draft accord Monday spelling out how the province should be governed, a document that one negotiator called ``the most pivotal point″ in the turbulent region’s history.
Capping a 22-month effort to broker a compromise, former Sen. George Mitchell delivered his 30-page document shortly before midnight to the eight parties involved in the peace talks.
``I feel very good about reaching this point but I recognize that there’s a long way to go,″ Mitchell told reporters later.
He had postponed distributing the document all day in hopes he could reduce divisions between the north’s two biggest parties: the Ulster Unionists on the pro-British Protestant side, the Social Democratic and Labor Party on the Irish Catholic side.
But both parties _ and the document itself _ acknowledged that profound differences remain.
The contents of the draft weren’t disclosed but negotiators characterized it in general terms. They said it contains blank spaces and lists of alternatives where Mitchell had hoped to put undisputed recommendations.
Nonetheless, Mitchell intends the draft to provide a basis for politicians to strike a comprehensive agreement by the intended Thursday midnight deadline.
Mitchell predicted that his paper would inspire ``an historic few days of final negotiation.″
He said that between now and Thursday night ``every ounce of effort that we have will be devoted toward bringing about a successful conclusion... .I hope to be home for Easter.″
Most negotiators declined comment on the draft accord until they could get some sleep and discuss it within their delegations. Mitchell asked them to return to the negotiating table Tuesday afternoon.
``This is the most pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s history,″ said Gary McMichael, who represents Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-British paramilitary group, the outlawed Ulster Defense Association.
McMichael said his militant Protestant supporters were worried that the negotiations would concede too much to Catholic hopes of uniting Ireland. He vowed not to accept an agreement ``simply for the sake of signing up to an agreement.″
The British and Irish governments, which co-sponsor the talks, want Protestants and Catholics to govern Northern Ireland together in an assembly, and to cooperate with the neighboring Irish Republic in a cross-border council of lawmakers.
While the outline of the would-be agreement has been acknowledged for months, its details have been a problem.
The SDLP and Ulster Unionists don’t agree on how to structure the Northern Ireland assembly, or what its relationship should be with the cross-border council.
The SDLP wants strong institutions in both parts of Ireland. It foresees the cross-border council enjoying equal status to the Northern Ireland assembly, which would have a Cabinet-style leadership open to all major parties _ including the SDLP’s rival for Catholic votes, the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party.
Ulster Unionists want to keep the cross-border council powerless and oppose forming a Cabinet to oversee what they envisage as a 90-member assembly. They want to leave substantial powers with the British Parliament in London, responsible for Northern Ireland since it abolished the province’s Protestant-dominated parliament in 1972.
And Ulster Unionist negotiator Jeffrey Donaldson denounced the idea that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams could have a Cabinet seat as ``a long way removed from reality.″
He said politicians like Adams and McMichael should be barred from senior posts until the Irish Republican Army and Ulster Defense Association start handing over weapons.
At the root of the dispute _ indeed, the entire Northern Ireland conflict _ is each community’s fear of being made subservient to the other.
Ulster Unionists founded Northern Ireland as a predominantly Protestant state in the 1920s when the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland gained independence from Britain.
The north’s growing Catholic minority is determined that any settlement must ensure that Protestants can’t out vote them within Northern Ireland, or pull the plug on the cross-border aspect of a settlement.
Sinn Fein opposes forming any Belfast assembly; its supporters want Northern Ireland abolished, not reformed.
``There’s considerable energy and a buzz about, but there’s also trepidation that what might emerge will be either difficult or impossible to sell to different constituencies,″ said Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin.
The Ulster Unionists face a severe challenge from two more hard-line Protestant parties that left the negotiations last year after Sinn Fein gained admission following the IRA’s July 1997 truce.
The Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists predicted Protestants would abandon Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble if he compromises.
``If David Trimble signs this document, this deal, at the end of the week, he will go down in history not as a deliverer of peace, but as the traitor of traitors to the unionist cause,″ said Willie McCrea, a senior Democratic Unionist.