U.S. To Help Salvage Northern Ireland Peace Deal

July 7, 2008 - 7:07 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - President Clinton has joined efforts by the British and Irish governments to salvage the Northern Ireland peace process, now in danger over collapsing over the issue of paramilitary disarmament.

Clinton said his administration was "heavily involved" in negotiations to get the process back on track, and he said he had spoken to some of the leaders involved.

He told reporters the process was working: "The joint institutions are working well; new investment is going into Northern Ireland; the people have voted for a peace process that united people with differences.

"It would be a tragedy if it were derailed. But in order to keep it going, everybody's going to have to ... honor the terms of the agreement."

Senior British and Irish officials will hold emergency talks in Dublin Wednesday in search of a way to bridge the gulf between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans.

The British government late Tuesday set a 48-hour deadline for trying to save the historic provincial power-sharing body set up just two months ago under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Pro-British unionists said the executive's collapse was "inevitable" after a key report indicated that neither the Irish Republican Army nor other paramilitary groups on either side of the sectarian divide had begun to destroy their weapons.

In December, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, became the first republican group to participate in ruling Northern Ireland. Its leaders warned this week that if the body stops functioning, the IRA may never give up its guns and bombs.

The IRA itself joined the debate by issuing a rare statement late Tuesday, saying it was "totally committed to the peace process" and noting that it was upholding a cease-fire. It said a representative had held several meetings with an international disarmament commission under retired Canadian general John de Chastelain.

Although the paramilitary groups have until May to disarm, unionists expected the process to begin before the home-rule government was established.

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble agreed to a compromise in November, saying the provincial executive could begin to function on the condition that weapons destruction or "decommissioning" began too.

If there was no progress by the time the process was reviewed in February, he assured his party, he would resign as First Minister of the executive.

A report by de Chastelain., issued to the two governments late Monday, has not yet been made public, but Trimble said it confirmed unionists' suspicions that no weapons had been destroyed or handed over.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was important to focus on the "huge progress" made so far in the effort to end the 30-year conflict.