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Saturday 17 March 2018

Historic talks hit obstacle they couldn't overcome

ine Kerr Political Correspondent

IN the month preceding the Northern Bank robbery, one of the biggest in UK history, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were engaged in painstaking negotiations.

In early December 2004, the two mediators believed a deal restoring power-sharing in the North was tantalisingly close.

They had just published their "blueprint" for a way forward in the negotiations.

With that "roadmap" in hand, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had been meeting with Mr Ahern, while Mr Paisley was talking to Mr Blair.

The prospect of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams reaching compromise was a slow but emerging reality in early December 2004.

The deal being negotiated would see an end to IRA activity, no more IRA arsenals, loyalist paramilitaries moving to reciprocate, Sinn Fein signing up to policing and the creation of a minister for justice in the North.

But things started to become unstuck around December 14, 2004, when Mr Ahern and his negotiators publicly acknowledged difficulties in having photographs taken of IRA decommissioning included in the deal to restore power-sharing.

Initially, Mr Ahern had been confident the deadlock over pictures could be resolved by Christmas.

At the time, Irish and British officials were reported to be working 14 -hour days to try and bring about a deal. General John de Chastelain of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) was prepared to bear witness to the dismantling of guns. But Mr Paisley insisted on photographic evidence to prove the IRA as a terrorist organisation was gone forever.

In mid-December, Mr Paisley was holding talks in Downing Street with Mr Blair, while Mr Ahern was with the SDLP in Dublin--before the action moved to Hillsborough Castle in Co Down on December 15.

Decommissioning was viewed in December 2004 as the final hurdle to an historic agreement.

But, ultimately, while the IRA was rejecting the DUP's demand for photographic evidence, plans were afoot for a bank raid on December 20, 2004.

Immediately, the peace process deal was in jeopardy and by early January, Mr Ahern was claiming that the Sinn Fein leadership knew in advance about the raid.

It would take months for the various parties to re-engage.

Irish Independent

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