IRA arms `fudge' angers Unionists

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The Independent Online
A DOCUMENT given to the Northern Ireland parties appears designed to fudge the issue of arms decommissioning and, at first sight, applies maximum pressure on David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party.

It comes as the British and Irish governments have imposed a 30 June deadline on the peace process in an attempt to resolve the long-running de-commissioning dispute and bring about a new cross-party executive.

At the heart of the document, which has been seen by The Independent, is this declaration, to be endorsed by the parties: "They accept the issue of arms must be finally and satisfactorily settled and will do what they can to achieve decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within the timeframe set down in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.

"The International Commission on Decommissioning will now begin a period of intensive discussions with all parties and report back on progress before 30 June."

On the face of it, this formulation appears to provide no guarantee to the Ulster Unionists that they will achieve their demand for IRA decommissioning before Sinn Fein is admitted to a new executive. It thus appears to be a retreat from the joint position of the two governments, as set out last month, that some IRA arms must be "put beyond use" before Sinn Fein join the executive.

While nationalists and republicans seem prepared to go along with the formulation, elements within Mr Trimble's party appear to be balking at its provisions. A long meeting of party assembly members on Saturday failed to reach agreement on the document, with about eight members reportedly registering opposition or reservations. The general sense yesterday was that Mr Trimble will now have to spend some weeks doing a selling job to the doubters in his party's ranks. He himself remained adamant at the weekend that his position on prior decommissioning would not change.

The document places at centre-stage in the peace process the DeCommissioning Commission headed by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, who has for many months been patiently working in Belfast. If his report concludes, against most expectations, that the IRA is prepared to decommission then there will be celebrations; if not, everything will be much more problematic.

The 30 June deadline is described by Downing Street as "an absolute", but most participants believe there will always be more opportunities to resolve the issue if this attempt fails. At the same time, however, the marching season is looming without agreement on the fiercely contested Drumcree Orange march, which is due in early July a few days after the new deadline.

Close observers of last week's talks said yesterday they drew some encouragement that Uunionists and republicans seemed anxious to resolve the issue and move to forming an executive. The Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP are expected to meet at Stormont today for talks.

David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party said he welcomed the deadline, which he thought would refocus minds, adding: "I think it is a chance to move the situation forward, though it should not be hyped out of all proportion."

He went on: "We have got a deadline, which is probably good news and wise given that it seemed that we would parade through this style of discussion and debate for ever."