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North Ireland Peace Discussion Derailed by Munitions Dispute

By Charles Trueheart

Efforts to defuse the most serious menace yet to the year-old Northern Ireland peace accord were put on hold Thursday after the two sides failed to reach agreement on how and when to dispose of paramilitary arms and munitions.

After three days of intensive negotiations before the Easter weekend deadline, the stymied process of salvaging the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was suspended until April 13.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the suspension “a pause for reflection” and declared the sides already had a “basis for agreement” to move past the sensitive issue of arms decommissioning.

The dispute has become a fulcrum for lingering sectarian mistrust after 30 years of terror and bloodshed here, and it has threatened to scuttle the establishment of power-sharing between Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority and Catholic minority.

The Irish Republican Army, the mainly Catholic paramilitary group that has been fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland, has refused a Protestant demand that it begin surrendering its arsenal of weapons as a sign of its commitment to the Good Friday accords.

Although the April 11, 1998, agreement does not require decommissioning before May 22, 2000, the main Protestant faction, the Ulster Unionist Party, has made a token delivery of IRA “hardware” a condition for participating in Northern Ireland’s new cabinet alongside representatives of Sinn Fein, the outlawed IRA’s legal political wing.

The Ulster Unionist Party won the largest share of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and its leader, David Trimble, has been designated the first minister, the top official under the new home rule arrangement.

Both Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams expressed disappointment at the outcome of the talks.