SOMEONE in the British government must have miscalculated badly over the possibility of reaching a final deal in the Northern Ireland peace process after five long years of on-off negotiations and painfully slow progress. Since one of the reasons for President Bush's journey to Belfast earlier this week was to give a final push to what he himself called at his press conference an “historic agreement”, some very abject apologies will have been made by Downing Street to the White House yesterday. The decision by Tony Blair and the Irish Republic's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to call off yesterday's planned meeting in Belfast at which they were going to unveil a new, final, blueprint for devolved government in Northern Ireland can only be called a diplomatic disaster. The blame for the last-minute failure of the negotiations will almost certainly be placed at the door of the IRA for refusing once more to give a strong enough statement about its readiness to renounce violence permanently and disarm comprehensively. Britain, backed by the Irish Republic, was ready to reduce the number of British troops in Northern Ireland and to agree to a form of amnesty for fugitive paramilitary suspects; at this point it is difficult to see what more could have been offered. Apart from the diplomatic embarrassment, the main effect of this further delay in reaching an agreement will probably be the postponment of the local elections for the devolved government of Northern Ireland due to take place on May 29. Meanwhile, the laborious negotiations will have to be re-started.


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