Hope renewed as time ticks away for Ulster

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST tentative green shoots of hope made their way through the political undergrowth in Belfast at the weekend as possible signs of flexibility came into sight. The hope for the stalled peace process came from the fact that comments from various key players were perhaps less hard line than might have been expected on the eve of the major negotiation which opens in Belfast today.

Even so, a tough round of talks is in prospect as Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, attempt to achieve a breakthrough by the Wednesday deadline.

The negotiating process may not be helped by the coincidence that the Parades Commission is due to announce its ruling today on whether next Sunday's Drumcree Orange parade can go ahead. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, spent much of yesterday meeting a number of elements, including Catholic residents of Portadown, to discuss Drumcree. The Church of Ireland made it clear yesterday that it wanted the march called off.

On the wider political front, Mr Trimble generated a frisson of interest when, during a round of weekend media interviews, he said of Sinn Fein and decommissioning: "I want to see the leaders of the republican movement tell the rest of us that they accept that they have an obligation to decommission all paramilitary weapons by May 2000.

"It is time they started. Let us start on Monday by them clearly, honestly and unequivocally saying on behalf of the republican movement that they will decommission weapons. Then at least we have got something to talk about."

This gave rise to speculation that the Ulster Unionist leader might be thinking in terms of moving from the party position of demanding guns up front, and would consider instead relying on promises or pledges.

His remarks were in sharp contrast to those of Jeffrey Donaldson, who declared on Saturday: "We cannot trust the IRA." A spokesman for Mr Trimble said later that there was no question of his position on decommissioning having changed.

In their weekend comments, Sinn Fein leaders tended to take refuge in generalities, playing their cards close to the chest. Mitchel McLaughlin, saying he was heartened by Mr Blair's approach, added: "I share the confidence of those who say we can do this. That is certainly the attitude of our party." Martin McGuinness added that Sinn Fein would, "in concert with everybody else, work to try and bring about decommissioning within the timeframe laid down".

A stern reminder that Mr Trimble could face internal revolt came from the Unionist MP Willie Ross, an opponent of the Good Friday Agreement, who warned his leader to beware of the "hothouse atmosphere" of the talks. He went on: "If he was so foolish as to try to sell the idea to the party that he can bring these people into government without weapons being handed in, I don't think that he could get away with it."

Mr Blair struck a different note of warning, saying of the prospects of failure: "There is no Plan B. Wednesday's deadline is real - it's why I have said we are staring into the abyss in Northern Ireland and must, somehow, pull ourselves back."

Meanwhile the Church of Ireland, which is led by Archbishop Robin Eames, has asked the rector of Drumcree parish church to withdraw the invitation to Orangemen to march there next Sunday. The rector, the Rev John Pickering, is thought unlikely to agree, but the move appears designed to show church disapproval of the traditional march and the equally traditional disturbances.

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