London and Dublin on Wednesday faced the most difficult impasse yet between the two governments over the Northern Ireland peace process, on a day when they were to have announced a breakthrough at a summit meeting.
The dispute, which caused Ireland Wednesday to “postpone” the meeting between prime ministers John Major of Britain and John Bruton of Ireland hours before it was scheduled to start, stems from the same issue that has stalled negotiations among Northern Ireland’s political parties for months: the disposition of Irish Republican Army weapons and bombs.
More troubling to both sides than the postponement of the summit is that the issues that were to be settled there remain unsettled, threatening the year-old cease-fire that has halted a generation of killing in the British province.
Sinn Fein, the IRA’s legal political wing, has refused British demands that it commit the IRA to “decommissioning” weapons prior to the start of talks among the parties toward a permanent settlement of Northern Ireland’s sectarian troubles. Both British and Irish officials had thought they had found a way around that stalemate: the creation of an international panel to be chaired by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell that would discuss the weapons issue independently of talks. This “parallel track” solution, which was to be announced at the summit, would have temporarily fudged the weapons issue while letting political dialogue begin.
But at the last minute, sources in Dublin said, Sinn Fein told Irish officials that this device was unacceptable and that they feared a British trap. Bruton then canceled the summit, on the grounds that an Anglo-Irish agreement unacceptable to Sinn Fein would accomplish nothing.
In London, British officials Wednesday described themselves as still baffled - and stunned - by the events. A round of meetings that included U.S. Ambassador William Crowe continued into the evening. In Dublin, Irish officials met with each other, with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and with the British ambassador in an effort to get the negotiations back on track. But at the end of the day, the summit had not been rescheduled.
The peace process formally began Aug. 31, 1994, when the IRA declared a cease-fire. A similar declaration from Protestant paramilitaries followed, as did bilateral talks between British government ministers and political leaders from both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. But the goal of having the parties sitting down to talk to each other has proved elusive, largely because of the weapons issue.
The British government, which relies in part on the support in Parliament of members of Northern Ireland’s Protestant “unionist” parties to stay in office, contends that Sinn Fein would find “a lot of empty chairs” if talks with Protestant political parties were scheduled without a commitment to disarm. Sinn Fein’s Adams, citing Irish history, has declared the British demand “impossible.”