Blair urges Unionists to back deal

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND today faces a potentially momentous week with all to play for in trying to cut the Gordian knot of decommissioning and bring about a new era of cross-community devolved government.

Thursday's meeting of the Ulster Assembly is expected to demonstrate whether the Ulster Unionist Party will overcome its many reservations and accept the deal put forward by Tony Blair. The Prime Minister yesterday urged them to do so.

Appealing to Unionists, Mr Blair warned there was little more he could do if both sides failed to reach an agreement over the next few days: "Don't just say no. I think we have taken it as far as we possibly can if we really can't make progress now. I have spent days and weeks in negotiation and this issue is not going to change.

"It really is a question of whether people are prepared to decommission their paramilitary weapons and take the gun out of the politics of Northern Ireland and whether, on the other side, people are prepared to share power."

But David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, concentrated his efforts over the weekend on wringing all possible last-minute concessions in advance of Thursday's Assembly meeting.

Mr Trimble has declined to act as salesman for Mr Blair's proposals, which he has described as unfair. With his party executive due to hold a key meeting on Wednesday night, the Government's hope is that he will then endorse the plan and urge his party to do likewise.

In the meantime, he will be scrutinising draft "fail-safe" legislation which the Government is bringing forward to employ sanctions against republicans if they draw back from decommissioning undertakings.

Mr Trimble will attempt to toughen up the Government's proposals. He is also hopeful of securing as many guarantees as possible from the Irish government and from the main nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to ensure that Sinn Fein could not remain in a new government without IRA decommissioning moves. He is further hoping that the IRA itself will clarify its position on decommissioning with a statement which might help to reassure the many doubters in his party.

Mr Trimble said: "I see no sign of any commitment by the terrorist organisations to disarm, I see no assurance coming from the Irish government, the British Government or the SDLP that in the event of their failure they would uphold the democratic principle. Until I see either of those I don't see any basis on which I could approach my party and ask them to take that risk."

He added: "If I gamble and the gamble is a mistake then we lose the process and we lose the current leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party." Later, he travelled to Dublin to meet the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

John Hume, leader of the SDLP, said on Irish radio: "There are no circumstances in which the SDLP would sit in government with any party that is engaged in violence or threatening violence. But as I have made clear, I am convinced that Sinn Fein is committed to the peace process and to developing the peace process and, as they have made publicly clear, they are working to take the gun out of Irish politics."

William Hague, the Tory leader, said his party would put forward amendments to the proposed legislation. He added: "Specifically, what we want to see in the legislation is a transparent timetable for the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. We also want it to be very clear that if the terrorists don't go along with it, the mechanisms of the fail-safe really would punish the defaulters... no more releases of prisoners, no more review of the criminal justice system or of the RUC."

Today's challenge is to see whether today's 12 July celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne, which represent the high point of the Orange calendar, will pass off peacefully. A trouble-free day will be regarded as helpful to the political atmosphere.

The main Belfast procession, which attracts 20,000 or more Orangemen and supporters, has been switched from its normal rural venue to Ormeau Park in south Belfast. While this is not far from the Catholic lower Ormeau area, the scene of recurring marching controversies, security sources indicate that they are reasonably confident the Orangemen can be kept well away from the district. One said last night: "It won't be a pretty sight, though. There will have to be a heavy cordon to make sure the marchers are kept at the far end of the park."

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