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Northern Ireland: Decommissioning Deadline Nears

London, 30 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set a deadline of midnight tonight for Catholic and Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland to resolve a deadlock that threatens their peace agreement of last year.

The 14-month-old agreement sought to end 30 years of sectarian conflict in the British-ruled province, where more than 3,200 people have died in terrorist bombings and shootings.

The agreement was brokered by Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who have been holding talks this week in Belfast with the rival factions in a bid to keep the peace process on track.

The so-called Good Friday peace pact called for the creation of a new power-sharing government, made up of Protestants and Catholics, to replace three decades of direct rule from London. The aim was to reconcile the province's Protestant majority -- who generally favor continued union with Britain -- and the Catholic minority, many of whom support a united Ireland. But the new power-sharing arrangements have failed to materialize because of differences between Protestant and Catholic leaders over the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

Protestant politicians say they will not implement the power-sharing arrangements unless the mainly Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) begins a process of handing in its guns and bombs. The IRA, which has waged a long terrorist campaign aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland, is by far the most heavily armed of the province's many outlawed groups. It has killed some 1,800 people, mainly civilians, in its drive for a united Ireland, and carried out devastating bombings on the British mainland.

Protestant leader David Trimble, who would be first minister in the new assembly, says the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, have failed to disarm as promised last year. He insists the IRA must hand in its weapons by next May before Sinn Fein can take up its two places in the power-sharing executive.

But the IRA and Sinn Fein say there is no pre-condition in last year's peace pact for a handing in of weapons, and have called for power-sharing to begin before decommissioning takes place. They have also offered to declare that "the war is over" in Northern Ireland --words that they have not used before. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says Protestant terrorist groups, blamed for the killings of 800 Catholic civilians, may use the impasse to break a shaky year-old ceasefire in Northern Ireland.

Blair, who set midnight as an absolute deadline for an agreement, says the province stands at an "abyss" if the peace process fails.

"We have come so far in this. We have agreed so much. All those institutions are there, ready to work, all the main constitutional issues have been settled, and people will neither understand nor forgive if we don't make this work. And, in particular, the reason we have to make it work is the children of Northern Ireland deserve a better future."

The Northern Ireland peace pact was endorsed by 71 percent of the population after it was agreed upon last May. But many Protestants are unhappy because 277 convicted IRA and other terrorists have been freed from United Kingdom jails as part of the deal.

Protestant anger mounted last week when a republican bomber --Patrick Magee, who was convicted of killing five people in attempting to blow up Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cabinet in a hotel in 1984 -- was released early from jail. Irish Prime Minister Ahern says his country, as well as Britain, want to do everything they can to promote an agreement.

"I detect from all the parties meeting here on Friday, and discussions yesterday, that people want to, in spite of the difficulties, in spite of the obstacles, want to find a resolution. And hopefully we can assist in doing that."

U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has backed the peace process from the outset, told the BBC this week that he understands why Sinn Fein had what he called "legitimate problems" with delivering IRA disarmament. But he said Sinn Fein and IRA leaders could do so "if they decide the price of failure is far higher than the price of compromise."

What happens if no deal materializes? The proposal for a power-sharing government will have to be shelved, although other peace moves -- including the release of prisoners -- will continue. But the process will come under strain early next month if Protestant crowds go ahead with marches through Catholic districts in defiance of the police.