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Progress but No Northern Ireland Deal

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Progress to restore Northern Ireland devolution has been "remarkable but is not yet complete", Tony Blair has said.

Hopes for a deal were dashed after Ian Paisley's DUP said it was not signing up, because the IRA was refusing photographs of decommissioning.

Prime Minister Blair and Irish premier Bertie Ahern published joint government proposals for power-sharing in Belfast.

He said if a deal had been reached there was agreement to complete IRA decommissioning by Christmas.

Northern Ireland's political institutions have been suspended since October 2002 amid claims of IRA intelligence-gathering at the Northern Ireland Office.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern's news conference came just hours after Mr Paisley confirmed a deal to restore devolution would not be signed.

Mr Blair said: "I think there is an inevitability about this process which is locked in. I can't see this process going backward but I do know that it's going to require extra effort to finish the journey.

"This is a transformed landscape in which we operate today but it won't be properly transformed until we have the devolved institutions back up and working again."

Referring to the IRA's refusal to allow photographic evidence, Mr Blair was anxious to play down the notion the IRA had made any commitment to this and then reneged on it.

"There is no allegation of bad faith here," he said.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the governments had worked on the proposals throughout 2004.

"Today is truly different - I don't think it, I know it. We had obviously wished to be able to present the proposals in the context of full agreement before we came here - but that is not possible.

"We are not quite at that point of total success. Our work must therefore continue to secure agreement and closure and what - by any standards - is a huge, impressive, indeed a landmark package."

He added: "We believe at this point, after many months of negotiation, our efforts will benefit from wider public appraisal and that is why we are publishing our proposals."

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said that progress was being held up by "the demand for a process of humiliation".

Mr Adams said the issue of photographs of decommissioning was first raised with the party in the week before the Leeds Castle talks in September.

Mr Adams said: "We were told by the two governments that this was a DUP demand and we told the governments, in our view it was not achievable.

Campaigners, shoppers and weariness: Belfast people have their say on the deal that wasn't.

"We were surprised on November 17 when were received their joint statements when this demand was contained in a paragraph of a draft IICD report.

"We made it clear then, that this wasn't a runner, in fact we asked the governments to take it out of their draft outlines. They explained to us there was no other way of getting the DUP to look at this."

DUP leader Ian Paisley said Sinn Fein had "pulled the plug" on the deal.

Mr Paisley said "significant progress" had been made on all aspects of the comprehensive agreement with the exception of how decommissioning would be handled.

He said: "We were in the process of resolving these outstanding matters when IRA/Sinn Fein brought their discussions with the government to an end.

"It is clear from the remarks of the prime minister and Bertie Ahern where the responsibility lies for the current impasse.

"One hardly needs to read between the lines to see that it was inability of the republican movement to decommission in the manner that was expected by the two governments. No should be in any doubt it was the IRA that said 'no'."

The SDLP's Mark Durkan said he did not want to become involved in a "blame game" over who was responsible for the failure of the deal.

He said: "Rather than 'another fine mess' we want to take this as 'another near miss' and work to get things over the line."

And he called for all parties to become involved in the talks.

There have been intensive negotiations between the two governments and the political parties over the past few weeks.

The main issues which have been highlighted in the latest round of intense talks include decommissioning, demilitarisation, policing and future devolved institutions.

The negotiations have been conducted through a series of British and Irish Government intermediaries because the DUP refused to hold face-to-face talks with Sinn Fein.


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Each side is really as bad as the other, is there anyone up there in charge who actually wants peace?

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'Arms photo reasonable': Ahern

British and Irish Government proposals for photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning were reasonable, the Irish premier has said.

The DUP had demanded clarification of Bertie Ahern's position after he suggested earlier in the week that the call for photographs was unworkable.

He was speaking on Wednesday as the British and Irish Governments held talks with the NI parties.

They are aimed at resurrecting a deal on power-sharing.

The governments want the discussions to focus on the key outstanding issue of IRA decommissioning and "transparency".

An agreement on restoring devolution broke down last week.

On Monday, the DUP had threatened to break off contact with the Irish Government after Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appeared to concede that photographic evidence of disarmament was "unworkable".

However, Mr Paisley said he would meet the Irish foreign minister once the taoiseach clarifies his government's position in the Irish Parliament.

'Fair and reasonable judgment'

Mr Ahern told the Dail on Wednesday he believed the governments' proposals over photographs continued "to represent a fair and reasonable judgment".

He said that, in the context of an overall comprehensive agreement, they should have been "sufficient to close the gap on this most sensitive issue".

"I should make it clear that we always understood that the photographs issue would be a difficult one for the IRA," he said.

"However, in the context of an overall package, it was our understanding that this proposal would be considered by them. They have, of course, since said that they are unable to agree to it."

The taoiseach said humiliation did not play any part in the governments' proposals and "cannot be part of this process".

Secretary of State Paul Murphy and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern are holding discussions with the parties at Hillsborough in County Down.

They both issued a statement on Wednesday saying they remained fully committed to the Good Friday Agreement and reaffirmed the view that their latest proposals can bring a deal.

However, there is no sign of the deadlock being broken.

Speaking after his meeting, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said there was now an exclusion clause which would see his party out of government if they did not vote for a new executive.

"The basis of inclusion for the DUP and Sinn Fein was good enough for them then, now why isn't it good enough for them to concede and allow to the SDLP and the UUP in the future?"

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said "no new ideas" had been put to his party.

Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey said: "People need to get their heads around this - this is the potential for an embryonic all-Ireland parliament."

Proposals published jointly by the two governments included a plan for the IRA to allow photographs to be taken of its weapons being put beyond use in the presence of independent witnesses.

The DUP argued that this was necessary to ensure that there was confidence in the act of decommissioning.

But Sinn Fein said the IRA would "not submit to a process of humiliation".

Earlier on Wednesday, the DUP's Gregory Campbell said there had to be a visual aspect to decommissioning so the public could have confidence in the process.

There had been no confidence in previous decommissioning "stunts" as there had been no transparency in them, he told BBC News on Wednesday.

US Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss is also at Hillsborough holding meetings with the politicians.

The political institutions in Northern Ireland have been suspended since October 2002 amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at the Northern Ireland Office.

The DUP and Sinn Fein became the largest unionist and nationalist parties after assembly elections in November 2003.

However, the two parties have not been able to reach a deal which would allow a power-sharing executive to be formed, and Northern Ireland continues to be governed by direct rule from Westminster.

Story from BBC NEWS:


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