19 November 2005

Leaders Discuss N. Ireland Peace Process


Friday November 18, 2005 9:46 PM
Associated Press Writer

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) - Northern Ireland's dominant Protestant politician discussed key problems besetting the province's peace process Friday during a rare meeting with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, spent about an hour in Ahern's Government Buildings headquarters in Dublin - only his second meeting there since opening normal diplomatic relations with the Irish government last year.

Paisley for decades rejected such contact in protest of Ireland's involvement in Northern Ireland, a predominantly Protestant part of the United Kingdom.

Paisley, 79, said his party emphasized it remained unwilling to share power with Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party that represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland. He said Protestants didn't believe that the IRA had fully disarmed, even though international disarmament officials announced in September that the outlawed group had done this in secret.

Despite Paisley's hostility to Sinn Fein, the British and Irish governments remain committed to reviving a power-sharing administration led by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. Such power-sharing was the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord of 1998, but a moderate-led coalition fell apart in 2002 amid chronic arguments over the IRA.

Both governments say they are cautiously hopeful that a report due to be published in January by an expert panel, the Independent Monitoring Commission, will confirm the IRA has ceased all activities, including bank robberies and attacks on criminal rivals.

``Depending on what the IMC says, we will expect progress to happen thereafter,'' said Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, who took part in Friday's discussions.

But Paisley discounted this. He said his party had been briefed twice in recent months by the monitoring commission, and was certain it wouldn't absolve the IRA of involvement in all activities, particularly in fuel and cigarette smuggling.

Paisley said he also pressed the Irish government on its plan to permit Northern Ireland politicians to speak as guests in Ireland's parliament. That proposal, sought by Sinn Fein, has been blocked by Irish opposition politicians.

Paisley said granting Sinn Fein leaders speaking rights in the Dublin parliament would ``jeopardize the prospect of a proper, constructive relationship between our two countries.''

He also criticized the Irish government's failure to extradite three IRA-linked fugitives to Colombia, where they fled convictions for training Marxist rebels in IRA weapons-making techniques. The trio resurfaced in Ireland in August, eight months after absconding on bail, but Ireland's legal system has taken no action on Colombia's request for extradition.

``We conveyed in the strongest possible terms that allowing these fugitives from justice to live freely within the Irish Republic is unacceptable, and Mr. Ahern must facilitate their swift extradition,'' Paisley said.

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