Irish Eyes Are Watching the Deadline Clock

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British prime minister Tony Blair is bashing heads together in a desperate bid to save the Northern Ireland peace process. Republicans and loyalists meeting with Blair and Republic of Ireland prime minister Bertie Ahern Wednesday in Belfast have until midnight to find their way around an impasse over disarmament. If they fail, so does last yearís Good Friday Agreement, to which both sides in the decades-old conflict signed on. That might bring President Clinton back in on the peace process. Last year the President invited both parties for talks at the White House to prod them into the deal, and he offered on Tuesday to intervene personally to save the agreement. Blair and Ahern have grounds to be optimistic, since the deadlock over whether members of the Sinn Fein party will be allowed to take their seats in a new Northern Ireland assembly before the IRA has turned over at least some of its guns appears to be a primarily symbolic issue. On the other hand, the fact that both sides have refused to budge on a who-goes-first quarrel despite the late hour suggests the breakdown signals a case of cold feet on both sides.

Blair and Ahernís efforts to cajole the two sides into accepting a compromise formula will receive plenty of impetus from beyond the gates of Stormont Castle, where the talks are being held. Loyalist Protestant militants from all over Northern Ireland announced Tuesday that, following the British ban on Sundayís planned march through a Catholic neighborhood in Drumcree, they plan to converge, come what may, on July 12 in Portadown, site of numerous previous clashes with the local Catholic community. So Blairís strong suit at the talks may well be the now-familiar "alternative too ghastly to contemplate."