Britain Forces a Northern Ireland Peace Plan

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Talk about bashing heads together. Northern Ireland's politicians failed to make a peace deal, so Britain plans to force them into one -- even as the province braces itself for some ugly fireworks on July 4. After marathon talks failed to yield a breakthrough two days after passing their deadline, British prime minister Tony Blair announced Friday that his government would simply implement the next stage of the peace process without waiting for republicans and loyalists to agree on the handover of IRA weapons. Loyalist politicians had sought to delay the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly's executive, which would include two seats for the republican Sinn Fein, until the IRA begins decommissioning its weapons. By legislatively enabling the creation of the executive, London is effectively endorsing Sinn Fein's position that the surrender of the IRA weapons should follow the timetable agreed to last year, which requires that the handover be completed by next May. Neither Sinn Fein nor the Ulster Unionists have endorsed the plan announced by Blair, but while Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was upbeat, Unionist leader David Trimble called the proposal "fundamentally unfair."

Trimble will now have to consult with his constituents over whether to accept the British plan or lead the parties who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain on a path of confrontation with London. The first test of the loyalist mood will come Sunday, when British troops will enforce a ban on a march by Protestant militants through a Catholic neighborhood in Drumcree. The spectacle of miles of razor wire and a field flooded to create a moat between Protestant marchers -- ostensibly commemorating the Battle of the Somme -- and some 1,000 troops and police protecting the Catholic residents of a nearby street may be the simplest illustration of the chasm that the negotiators failed to bridge at Stormont.