N. Ireland nears end to impasse in peace process; Protestant, Catholic heads trade conciliations to help gain followers' approval


BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- After centuries of hatred, division and bloodshed, nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland engaged in an unprecedented exercise of mutual reassurance yesterday as they prepared to break the impasse that has stalled the peace process for more than a year.

In a pair of statements that are part of an orchestrated piece of confidence building, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams went out of their way to give each other the political cover they need to sell a compromise to their skeptical grass roots.

Trimble said his party, which represents most Protestants in Northern Ireland, is willing to drop its demand that the Irish Republican Army turn in its weapons before unionists form a power-sharing government with Catholic nationalists that will include two Sinn Fein Cabinet ministers.

Adams said that republicans, who for two centuries have considered it their duty to use force to seek an independent and united Ireland, accept that the turning in, or "decommissioning," of IRA weapons "is an essential part of the peace process."

Adams gave his most explicit repudiation of violence yet, including a condemnation of vigilante beatings and shootings that the IRA and its loyalist counterparts routinely use to police the neighborhoods they control.

"We are totally opposed to punishment attacks," Adams said. "We are totally opposed to any use of force or threat of force by others for any political purpose."

The IRA is expected to issue its own statement, perhaps as early as today, endorsing the Sinn Fein statement.

The sequence of events that is supposed to break the impasse was choreographed by George J. Mitchell, the former U.S. senator from Maine who brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and has spent the last 10 weeks trying to save it.

The process effectively stalled 17 months ago when the unionists said they would not sit in government with Sinn Fein until the IRA began disarming, and the republicans countered that nothing in the agreement linked creation of the government to decommissioning.

If Trimble gets approval from a meeting of the 800-member party council tentatively set for Nov. 27, the local government could be formed within two weeks. It remains unclear when, or if, the first IRA weapons would be turned in, though unionists want to see some "product" by January.

Trimble yesterday made what political observers here described as the most conciliatory statement ever by a unionist leader aimed at Catholic nationalists:

"The UUP [Ulster Unionist Party] recognizes and accepts that it is legitimate for nationalists to pursue their political objective of a united Ireland by consent through exclusively peaceful and democratic methods. The UUP is committed to the principles of inclusivity, equality, and mutual respect on which the institutions are to be based."

Adams has argued that the only way to get the IRA to turn in weapons is to implement the Good Friday Agreement and show that politics offers an alternative to violence.

He reiterated that theme yesterday, using what observers said was the strongest language ever by a Sinn Fein leader to renounce violence.

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