Blair takes tougher line in Ulster

Click to follow
TONY BLAIR yesterday signalled a new and more exacting government line on testing the republican movement's commitment to purely democratic means of action in an attempt to boost Protestant support for the Good Friday agreement.

Visiting Belfast in an effort to persuade the large numbers of Unionists who are undecided on how to vote in next Friday's referendum, he promised legislation aimed at ensuring that the IRA's "so-called war is finished, done with, gone".

He listed a range of factors, including the dismantling of paramilitary structures and cooperation on arms decommissioning, which he said the Government would put into legislation. But in a meticulously worded speech he appeared to stop short of specifying what Unionist critics of the accord want - making IRA decommissioning a formal requirement before Sinn Fein can be admitted into a new administration.

In his speech he made only a glancing reference to the early release of prisoners, which has led to much Unionist criticism. This sentiment may be exacerbated by the release, on four-day home leave, of the notorious gunman Michael Stone.

Mr Blair said there had to be a clear commitment that violence was over for good, with an end to bombings, killings and beatings and an end to targeting and procurement of weapons.

But in a balancing section of his speech he added: "We are not setting new preconditions or barriers. On the contrary, we want as many people as possible to use the agreement as their bridge across to an exclusively peaceful path."

Mr Blair's increased pressure on republicans found an echo in Dublin where the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, declared: "People are entitled to an absolute assurance that the conflict is over, that weapons will not be used again by either the parties owning them or allowed to fall into the wrong hands."

Mr Blair's walkabout and talk at the Belfast Balmoral Show was not quite the slick production one expects from new Labour. His speech was broadcast at strategic points outside. But much of it was indistinct and accompanied by neighing of horses and mooing of cattle.

Many of those present, however, waited in the belief that Mr Blair would appear outside for a question-and-answer session. In the event, this was cancelled at the last moment, and the PM and his entourage made a quick exit from the back of the stands.

Robert Fraser, a Protestant farm manager, said he had wanted clarification about aspects of the speech. "[Blair] was going on about reviews on the rules of the settlement including decommissioning. Who is going to be doing that? ... I wanted him to stand here and answer these questions. It seems to me he is only ready for things his people are carefully setting up."

Loyalist released, page 2