Target Date For N. Ireland Rule

Northern Ireland graphic Irish peace talks aol
The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland announced an ambitious plan Friday for restoring power to Northern Ireland's suspended Catholic-Protestant administration by May 22.

Speaking shortly before midnight following more than 30 hours of negotiations with local parties, Bertie Ahern of Ireland and Tony Blair of Britain said all sides had agreed to set the "target date" for resuming power-sharing.

May 22 is the second anniversary of the overwhelming ratification of the Good Friday peace accord in public referendums. The historic pact also made the date the deadline for Northern Ireland's rival paramilitary groups to disarm, an unfulfilled goal that has repeatedly stymied wider political progress.

In February, Britain suspended the central goal of that landmark pact, a joint Catholic-Protestant administration for Northern Ireland, because of unfulfilled Protestant demands for Irish Republican Army disarmament to begin.

Since then, the two governments have been pressing the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party to secure a firm disarmament commitment from the IRA. In exchange, they want the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, to resume working alongside Sinn Fein within the suspended four-party administration before any disarmament happens.

Achieving these goals requires a united approach from the two governments, whose cooperation in Northern Ireland has underpinned the entire peace process.

But an internal British government document, leaked to an Ulster Unionist politician shortly before Thursday's talks began, suggested that senior British and Irish ministers have been arguing bitterly over the way ahead.

Britain's Northern Ireland Office in Belfast refused to confirm whether the document was genuine. The Irish government team, though privately livid at the leak, declined to make any public comments.

The Ulster Unionist politician, Chris McGimpsey, said the document had come from an "impeccable source" within the British government's civil service who was disturbed with the Irish government approach to recent talks.

The document, reporting on a mid-April dinner meeting between the two governments, said Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen had argued at length with Britain's minister for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson. It said the argument stopped only when Ahern and Blair came into the room.

The note said Mandelson believed Cowen "has no feel for or understanding of unionist concerns," and appeared determined to take Sinn Fein's side in efforts to resolve the impasse.

It said further that Cowen wanted commitments from Britain that, "beyond the constitutional acceptance that Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, there should be no further evidence of Britishness in the governance of Northern Ireland."

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