Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Talks begin in Northern Ireland

GLOOMY Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy was due to meet all of the province's main political groups, but many are skeptical about future progress

AFP , BELFAST

Britain's minister for Northern Ireland was due to open talks yesterday with the province's political parties following the victory in the assembly election of a hardline Protestant party opposed to the 1998 agreement which launched the peace process.

The success of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by the 77-year-old firebrand Ian Paisley was matched by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- Northern Ireland's main Catholic paramilitary group, which beat out a more moderate Roman Catholic party.

The DUP, which is opposed to the 1998 Good Friday peace accords that ended 30 years of bloodshed and bombings in the British province, has pledged not to deal with Sinn Fein, boding ill for a quick resumption of the power-sharing assembly which has been suspended for more than a year.

Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy was due to hold talks over the weekend with all of the province's main political groups, in the hope that the assembly and power-sharing executive can yet be reinstated.

After the election results were announced on Friday British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern issued a statement reiterating "the Good Friday agreement remains the only viable political framework that is capable of securing the support of both [Protestant and Catholic] communities in Northern Ireland."

They invited the main political parties to submit their views about reviewing certain aspects of the agreement, stressing it "is a review of the operation of the agreement. Its fundamentals are not open to renegotiation".

But after topping the poll with 30 out of 108 seats, the DUP will feel it is in a strong position to demand renegotiation of the peace accord.

DUP leader Paisley campaigned on a promise that he would never resume power sharing with Sinn Fein, which finished third in the election. Several of Sinn Fein's members used to be combatants in the IRA, which since 1997 has observed a ceasefire in its armed struggle against British rule.

The DUP believes that too many concessions have been made to the Catholic community. The party is also angry because the IRA has yet to fully disarm five years after the Good Friday agreement were concluded.

Northern Ireland's assembly was born out of the Good Friday agreement and created unprecedented power sharing between former foes from the two communities.

But it has been suspended since October last year when London reimposed direct rule after a spy ring linked to the IRA was discovered at the heart of the legislature, prompting a breakdown of mutual trust.

The election result dealt a serious blow to the credibility of David Trimble, the leader of the moderate Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) which won the 1998 elections but could muster only 27 seats this time around.

Sinn Fein won 24 seats, while its more moderate Catholic rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), took 18 seats -- an exact reversal of their showing in the 1998 election.

Murphy was not expected to call a first meeting of the assembly -- which would give the parties six weeks to elect a first and deputy first minister -- until the DUP agrees to talk directly with Sinn Fein.

Both Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland agree, however, that there can be no going back to the years of bloody sectarian strife -- the most protracted in western Europe post-World War II -- in which more than 3,500 people have died.

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