Decommissioning: First deadline missed on Good Friday agreement

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TODAY MARKS the first major missed deadline of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland parties having failed to agree among themselves on the perennially perplexing issue of arms decommissioning.

A new north-south institution and a new shadow executive, ready to provide Northern Ireland with the structures of government and administration, were supposed to be in place by today.

But both have been held up by the decommissioning issue, with Sinn Fein demanding entry to the new executive as of right but Unionists insisting that this should not happen until decommissioning begins. The republicans are anxious to inject new momentum into the process, while the Unionist instinct is clearly to play it long.

Supporters of the agreement generally regard the pace of progress as disappointing, but almost certainly not fatal to the agreement, since a much more important deadline will not be reached until February.

This is when the executive is due to receive real powers from Westminster.

The shadow executive would have exercised no actual authority, but was supposed to be engaged in important preparatory work ready for the actual devolution of power.

It remains to be seen whether the decommissioning dispute will drag on until February or whether it might be resolved more quickly.

A meeting at Stormont yesterday between the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, appears to have gone not at all well, apparently making no progress toward bridging the gap between the two poles.

After the hour-long meeting, the fourth between the two men, Mr Trimble complained that Mr Adams had had nothing new to say.

He accused Mr Adams of arranging the encounter as a publicity stunt.

Unionist sources described the meeting as "frank and hardnosed", while a spokesman for Mr Trimble described it as their "worst ever".

Mr Adams called on Tony Blair to intervene, accusing Mr Trimble of operating a go-slow policy, which was in breach of the agreement, and saying that he was unimpressed by him.

Most of the assembly parties will gather again for a round-table session on Monday morning, and next week they may settle the issue of how many new Northern Ireland departments there are to be.

The Unionists would prefer seven departments, which would give only one seat to Sinn Fein; the latter want 10 ministries, which would guarantee them two.

Most of the other parties favour 10 departments.

There has also been a fair amount of political manoeuvring on the question of who would control finance, which is regarded as the most important department.