Tony Blair has postponed until Monday a visit to Belfast for an intense negotiating session in which he and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, will seek to seize what he described as "one last chance to push for peace in this process". The two leaders will meet at the funeral of the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Basil Hume, tomorrow in London.
For the first time, Mr Blair admitted that no progress on decommissioning was being made, and he appealed for a firm commitment to do so before relaunching the final round of talks next week. "We haven't had from any paramilitary group an absolute commitment to decommissioning at all in any timescale. We need to be sure of these things before we can move forward," he said.
The week of negotiations will end on 30 June, which Mr Blair has insisted is an absolute deadline. The British and Irish governments, and indeed everyone else, is expecting the negotiations to be the toughest of tests, given the entrenched positions of both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein.
Success would mean the early establishment of a historic new administration including both Unionist and Sinn Fein members. Failure could plunge the process into crisis, leaving its survival vulnerable to the uncertainties of the looming marching season.
It emerged yesterday that the decommissioning body headed by Canadian General John de Chastelain has made a move which could become an important component of a possible decommissioning deal. The general has asked all parties to submit answers to a number of questions no later than noon on 28 June, in order to prepare a report for the two governments on the afternoon of 29 June.
Parties are asked if any areas of implementation of the overall agreement would "demonstrably facilitate the decommissioning process". A further question asks whether it can help determine the willingness of paramilitaries to hand over weapons by May 2000, by asking if the paramilitary group will give the commission a firm basis for expecting that it will decommission by May 2000. The decommissioning body also wants to know when it can expect to define practicalities such as types of weapons, order of handover, location of decommissioning and general time-frame.
Such questions will clearly form an important part of the coming negotiations. Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said his party would answer the questions in a positive and constructive way, but would keep its answers confidential.
Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, was highly suspicious of the de Chastelain move, saying: "It is very clear the questions were set up to give the IRA a fudging opportunity. If the IRA take this bait, it will be used by the Government as one of the ingredients in a political fudge in the run-up to the June 30 deadline."
Conservative leader, William Hague, yesterday offered support to Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, when he said in the Commons that his party supported the agreement but looked "with dismay" at the early release of terrorists and the possible inclusion of republicans in the executive when "not one gun or ounce of Semtex has been handed in".
Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, facing angry Unionist calls for her resignation, sat alongside the Prime Minister at question time after brushing aside Mr Trimble's calls for her sacking.
t A man was being questioned last night about the murder of Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane, whose case was recently reopened following renewed allegations that the British security force was involved in the killing. The 48-year-old man was arrested in west Belfast by detectives working on the inquiry being carried out by John Stevens, the Deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
The suspect, who is not a member of the British military or RUC, was detained and questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Mr Finucane was shot dead in his Belfast home in 1989 in an attack that the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters said was its work.
Review, page 3Reuse content