Blair defends `best chance for peace'

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TONY BLAIR appealed to opponents of the latest plan for Ulster yesterday by stressing that it was the "best chance for peace in this generation".

The Prime Minister said "certainty was more important than words" in ensuring that the process of decommissioning would begin in Northern Ireland. He said, during an emergency statement: "After 30 years of bloodshed, grief-stricken families, terror-torn communities, is it not worth waiting 30 days to see if these undertakings are fulfilled?"

He added: "I cannot make the other parties agree to a new executive. I cannot force anyone to sit in a government with anyone else. But I can make sure that Sinn Fein do not continue in an executive with the Ulster Unionists should there be a default of the de Chastelain process."

Mr Blair told Unionists they now had a much better deal than was on offer during the Good Friday Agreement at Hillsborough. "This provides a guarantee of a complete process of decommissioning, plus a failsafe that protects fully the interests of the Unionists."

He added: "If last Friday's agreement is put through, we will know within days whether the paramilitaries are serious about decommissioning their weapons." If the undertakings were fulfilled, real peace would come. "If they are not, then we will know that the challenge of true democracy was too much for those linked to paramilitary groups. Either way, we will know. Discuss the detail, debate it, engage. But don't throw away the best chance for peace we will have this generation."

But William Hague cast doubts on an IRA commitment to start decommissioning.

"So far [it] has not happened. The obstacle to progress is not David Trimble and his party, who have done all that is required in the agreement, but the terrorists, republican and loyalist, and their political representatives who have failed to get rid of their arms. Against this background the anxieties of the Unionists are wholly understandable."

Mr Hague, who met the Prime Minister yesterday morning to discuss the agreement, said Ulster's politicians were being asked to act as government ministers in a part of the United Kingdom with representatives of terrorist groups that remain fully armed and capable of carrying out violence on a massive scale.

If there was a failure of paramilitaries to decommission and the Government suspended the operation of the institutions "this would be punishing the democratic politicians for the failure of paramilitaries to decommission", he added, before asking Mr Blair: "Would you confirm that in these circumstances you would ... put on hold any reform of the RUC and stop the early release of terrorist prisoners?"

Mr Blair said that, in this agreement, it would be the party that was in default that should be punished. "We can make that very clear indeed."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "It is important that all sides, perhaps especially the Unionists, look at this in detail rather than per-emptorily dismissing it. This will damage not only the peace process ... but possibly the Unionist cause as well."

But Mr Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, told Mr Blair: "Do you know that asking us to include Sinn Fein in the executive in advance of decommissioning is asking us to sacrifice democratic principles to expediency?" Mr Trimble said if the IRA did not like the result of this agreement it could "close things down by not decommissioning. Other paramilitaries could decide to stop decommissioning to destroy the agreement."

John Major, the former prime minister, said: "The fear in Ulster is that Sinn Fein will enter an executive, the IRA will not disarm ... Sinn Fein will assert that they are separate and pressure will build up for them to remain, for fear of a fresh bout of violence if they are removed. Can you be absolutely clear that you will not let that happen?" He said any legislation that came out of an agreement had to be able to ensure "that could not happen".

Mr Blair said he understood the points being made by Mr Major but said there was "no possibility" of Unionists being made to sit in an executive with Sinn Fein if it was in breach of the undertakings it had given. Mr Major also asked for confirmation that the SDLP would remain in an executive even if Sinn Fein was expelled

Mr Blair told him: "The SDLP must make their own position clear but their position - as I understand it - is that they are prepared to move forward without Sinn Fein, should the circumstances be such that Sinn Fein are clearly the defaulting party." Mr Blair added there were "all sorts of discussions" last week and "all sorts of assurances were given.

"But we've learnt enough in Northern Ireland that you cannot in the end pay attention to the assurances. Unless the assurances are followed by deeds, then there's no deal."