BlairBy Frederick Studemann

Tony Blair has cleared his diary next month for three days of talks with Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, and representatives of the main Northern Ireland political parties.

His aim is to revive one of the biggest achievements of his premiership- the 1998 Good Friday agreement between Northern Ireland’s warring communities as well as the governments in London and Dublin.

If the various sides can resolve their differences, the province’s devolved assembly and executive – which were suspended in October 2002 following the discovery of an IRA spy ring in the UK government’s Belfast offices – can be restored and North ern Ireland’s journey towards normality after decades of conflict can continue.

The latest drive to entrench a settlement comes at a resonant moment. Exactly a decade ago the IRA declared a historic ceasefire. A deal looks uncertain however. On one side stands the Democratic Unionist party, the resolute voice of Protestantism- on the other, Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA.

Both traditionally represented the harder-line elements of their communities but now have come to enjoy the support of the majority.

“The extremes have become representative,” notes one UK official.

The DUP says it will not talk to Sinn Féin until the IRA disbands. “So long as they are what they are – an adjunct to the IRA – we won’t treat them as democrats and consciously refuse them contact,” says Jim Allister, DUP member of the European parliament.

The party also wants a complete renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement, which it shunned.
Some fear that the DUP is concerned more with consolidating its position as the biggest unionist party ahead of next year’s expected British general election than striking a compromise and exposing itself to charges of “selling out”. Such charges cost David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist party and first minister in the devolved government, votes in last year’s elections to the local assembly.

Sinn Féin’s position appears more conciliatory. Gerry Adams, party president, seemed earlier this month to countenance the disbandment of the IRA if it would remove the unionist “excuse” of paramilitarism representing an obstacle to a deal. Separately, he offered support for the province’s police force if the government agreed to “democratic control” of an institution long-regarded with suspicion and hostility by nationalists.

But while officials believe such pronouncements help to create a positive mood for the talks, they are not seen as marking a substantial policy shift because they come with many conditions attached.
There have been other positive signs, such as the recent appearance of Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior DUP figure, at a festival in predominantly Catholic west Belfast where Mr Adams was among republicans in the audience.

There is also talk that the parties are speaking through intermediaries, although both sides deny this.

Optimists point out that for all their differences, the DUP and Sinn Féin are united in their desire for power. “Sometimes people’s different interests can merge,” notes Alex Maskey, a Sinn Féin member of the devolved assembly and former lord mayor of Belfast.

Pessimists, however, worry that the momentum has been lost. Northern Ireland has had peace for most of the past decade, the numbers of troops and police are being scaled down, the economy is doing well and no one fears an imminent return to sectarian conflict.

Since suspension, direct rule through the Northern Ireland Office has proved efficient, with ministers from Britain often proving more able to take tough decisions – such as closing hospitals or introducing water rates – than their Northern Irish counterparts in the devolved administration might have been.

“Look around you,” says Paul Bew, professor at Queens University, pointing at the convivial scene of people enjoying an after-work drink in a Belfast pub. “Where’s the crisis?”

A recent survey of public attitudes showed two-thirds of Protestants either opposed or were indifferent to the restoration of self-rule. “House prices are rising, unemployment is low, hospital waiting lists are falling – do you really want to make a compromise with someone you don’t like? Where is the pressure?” says Prof Bew.

The pressure might yet come. While officials say there is no plan B, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern have warned that they are not prepared to continue searching for a deal if it is clear that none is to be had.

The result would be a continuation of direct rule with significant consequences for the devolved structures. This could prove more damaging to unionist interests. The Belfast assembly could face the prospect of being wound up, taking with it the predominance of unionists in local decision-making. But the north-south bodies that deal with issues of mutual interest – such as waterways and food safety – and are viewed sceptically by unionists, stand a chance of continuing in some form. Many unionists view these bodies – the second “strand” of the Good Friday agreement – as the thin end of a nationalist wedge towards establishing a single government for the whole island of Ireland.

To avoid that scenario, Mr Blair must hope that the choice of Leeds Castle in Kent for the talks, scheduled for September 16, will provide some inspiration. The impressive moated pile was the location of negotiations in 1978 between Israel, Egypt and the US, which eventually led to the Camp David agreement.