Why N. Ireland Peace Talks Passed Deadline

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Northern Irelands problem appears to be less with its leaders than with their followers. Lock the politicians in a room for long enough and theyll make a deal, but selling it to their supporters in the cold light of day is another matter. An 18-hour negotiating session to save the regions peace process passed a crucial midnight deadline Wednesday without reaching agreement on whether the IRA would have to begin surrendering its weapons before its political wing, Sinn Fein, could enter a new government structure. Despite bitter mutual recriminations between republican and loyalist negotiators, talks reconvened Thursday. "Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has only a narrow majority of loyalists behind him and he cant afford to sign something his constituency doesnt accept," says TIME London correspondent Helen Gibson. "Hes even less able to be seen to be accommodating the republicans as pressure mounts at Drumcree," where Britain has banned a planned march by Protestant loyalists through a Catholic neighborhood.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams faces a similar problem. "Handing over weapons for the IRA is tantamount to surrender, and Sinn Fein points out that last years agreement contains no provision for the IRA to do so before May 2000," says Gibson. Sinn Fein is offering simply to try its level best to get the IRA to comply, while Britain is offering a compromise in which the new Northern Ireland cabinet can expel the partys representatives if the IRA hasnt turned over weapons by next May. Meanwhile, President Clinton -- who helped engineer the so-called Good Friday Agreement last year that led to the current talks -- spoke by phone with all the parties. The dispute over when, rather than whether, weapons are decommissioned may not look like a deal-breaker from the outside, but the dispute highlights a deeper problem: "Despite the agreements theyve made so far, each side maintains a deep and palpable mistrust of the other," says Gibson. Even if theyre able to resolve the weapons deadlock and create the new cabinet, its meetings are going to be pretty lively.