Hillsborough (Northern Ireland), March 3 (Reuters): Northern Ireland’s leaders began crucial talks on a final peace settlement today, with IRA guerrillas under increasing pressure to lay down their arms for good.
Delegations from the main political parties joined British and Irish Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern for a summit aimed at restoring the power-sharing government in Belfast that collapsed five months ago.
With Blair’s time increasingly taken up by the prospect of war in Iraq, many observers see the summit as the last chance for making progress in the immediate future.
Adding to the urgency are looming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly scheduled for May 1. If they are to go ahead, the governments would like to have a deal in place before the official start to campaigning on March 21.
The success of the two leaders’ efforts will hinge on what moves the IRA is prepared to make in response to any deal.
“We wouldn’t be here unless we believed that real progress is being made,” Blair’s official spokesman told reporters as the leaders gathered at Hillsborough Castle, south of Belfast.
“This is a time for big steps because we are at that stage of the process — what we have to get is not something that just gets us through the next stage but something that is durable.”
Republican sources played down speculation that the IRA, one of Europe’s oldest and most feared guerrilla groups, could be preparing to destroy the arsenal which sustained its war against British rule and stand down its units.
But Mitchel McLaughlin, a senior figure in the Catholic group’s political ally Sinn Fein, was sounding an upbeat note, telling BBC Radio he believed movement from the British“will produce a very positive reciprocation from the IRA”.