Irish American Information Service


09/11/04 14:10 EST

The core issue of the move towards restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland was whether the Democratic Unionist Party is capable of striking a deal, Sinn Fein said today.

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, the party chairman, said Sinn Fein was dedicated to seeing the Stormont assembly and power sharing executive resume but the party had genuine grounds for concern on whether the DUP was ready to do the work required.

The British Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair has warned that a return to direct rule for Northern Ireland was not possible unless the three- days of high-level talks in Leeds Castle next week were successful.

Mr McLaughlin said: "Essentially Sinn Fein is not preparing for failure, other parties and indeed governments can speak for themselves, we are in to do the business. I think giving people opt out clauses is perhaps a mistake. Our party will be going in with a can do attitude rather than legislating for failure."

Mr McLaughlin was speaking as a meeting of the party's Ard Chomhairle (governing Executive) in Dublin.

Party leader Mr Gerry Adams and Mr Martin McGuinness were discussing the party's strategy ahead of next week's talks chaired by Mr Blair and the Taoiseach Mr Ahern.

The Sinn Fein leadership will be in meetings with representatives of the British and Irish governments over the weekend.

The British Government is demanding closure at next week's Leeds Castle talks and threatening a return to direct rule if the DUP and Sinn F?n cannot agree the basis for a resumption of power- sharing devolution.

Mr McLaughlin said: "We rule nothing out and we certainly are not threatening to walk away."

The chairman said the party would be asking the Irish government this weekend what their view was on Mr Blair`s comments of direct rule.

He added: "I would expect the Irish government to defend the good Friday agreement and direct rule is not any part whatsoever of the Good Friday Agreement."

The party said they were looking for a deal this week to return devolved government to Northern Ireland.

After almost two hours of talks with the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, in his Sedgefield constituency yesterday, Mr Tony Blair, said: "There comes a point when the final decisions have got to be made, and they've got to be made in a way that brings closure. That's where we are at now."

Mr Blair's warning was underlined by Northern Secretary Mr Paul Murphyin which he defines the British "Plan B" as provision for political failure and "an alternative based on direct rule" which neither side will like.

While Dublin could hardly be sanguine about a return to protracted direct rule, Irish sources last night confirmed the Taoiseach's agreement with Mr Blair that "this is it" and that next week's talks must reach "the point of decision".

While some senior Irish sources are known to doubt the Rev Ian Paisley's readiness to cut a deal, Mr Ahern spoke warmly of his dealings with the DUP leader since last January, which were "fruitful, open and very businesslike".

He said: "We sincerely believe we can make an arrangement around the issues that are on the table with the DUP, and we will do all we can to do so."

Mr Blair said: "Two years on the elements are still the same. It's apparent what has to happen. There has to be a complete and unequivocal end to violence. There has to be a willingness on that basis [by unionists] to share power. The elements are clear. The question is - is the will clear? Do people really want to do it? And this is the chance. There's no point in us carrying on continually having these meetings unless that will exists. And we'll find out next week whether it really does."

Asked if an agreement next week might be played out over several months, possibly to the far side of Christmas, Mr Blair replied: "I hope we can get everything going as swiftly as possible if we can get the basic agreement, and it's the basic agreement that matters. Everybody now believes the only basis on which power can be shared in a way that is fair is if violence is given up completely, and there's no ambiguity about it, no ambivalence, no thinking 'well, a little bit doesn't matter'. It's got to stop."

Senior Whitehall sources stressed later that Mr Blair's demand that there be "no ambiguity, no ambivalence and so on" applied equally to the DUP.

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