Blair edges around IRA arms deadlock

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The Independent Online
FRESH ATTEMPTS will be made this week to inject new momentum into the troubled Northern Ireland peace process despite the setback of the IRA having ruled out arms decommissioning.

Last week's presentation of the Nobel peace prize to John Hume, the SDLP leader, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, followed as it was by the refusal to decommission, has had no evidently beneficial effect on the process.

But although the decommissioning nut appears as difficult to crack as ever, both the British and Irish governments remain hopeful of making early progress on lesser but important issues. These are principally the agreement on the shape of new Northern Ireland government departments and links with the Irish Republic.

Both Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, are expected to become involved in efforts to clear these issues out of the way before Christmas. Success in this field would, it is hoped, restore some momentum and prepare the ground for a new year push to tackle decommissioning.

On the technicalities of these issues, Unionists and nationalists are by all accounts on the point of agreement: a senior Unionist figure said they and the SDLP were "within an ace" of an accord. The question is whether prime ministerial involvement can clinch the issue.

The weekend brought salvoes of hard-line rhetoric between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein. Mr Trimble said: "We are quite disappointed at the failure of the Sinn Fein leadership, who have it within their power to resolve this issue. It is their intransigence that is the problem. It is a repudiation of peace and I am sure all civilised people will repudiate them."

Gerry Kelly - a senior Sinn Fein member who has been euphemistically described as "close to the thinking" of the IRA - meanwhile accused the Unionist party of bad faith and of attempting to exclude Sinn Fein from new political arrangements.

In an important speech in commemoration of a republican hero, he added: "Republicans are becoming increasingly detached from the Good Friday Agreement.

"It is increasingly my own view that the Unionist party is engaged in an attempt to push the IRA back to war."

Significantly, however, he went on to signal that republicans were not about to fall into this alleged trap. "There is an onus on republicans to resist the destructive and short-sighted Unionist strategies," he said.

The Unionist and Sinn Fein positions have now assumed a curious symmetry.

Unionists say Sinn Fein leaders can and should push the IRA into decommissioning; republicans say Mr Trimble and his allies should convince nervous backbenchers that Sinn Fein should be brought into government.