IRA arms issue puts growing pressure on peace process

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The Independent Online
A DAY of sharp divisions in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday pointed up the gulfs between republicans and Unionists as well as highlighting the increasingly bitter differences within Unionism itself.

In an illustration of the pressures generated by the decommissioning deadlock, Sinn Fein accused the Unionist leader, David Trimble, of dishonouring his pledge of office as First Minister designate by allegedly refusing to work the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Trimble and his deputy, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, announced a round of talks between the parties which will open with a round-table meeting on Thursday. Sinn Fein dismissed this as window-dressing.

Mr Mallon told the Assembly that this week's target for establishing a new north-south institution to link Belfast and Dublin would not be met. Saying there was a deep sense of frustration at what he described as this failure, Mr Mallon added: "This is the price we are paying for the deadlock over decommissioning and it is a very high price."

Although Tony Blair said at the weekend that he hoped the deadline could still be met almost all assembly members now believe this is not possible. Advance on this front seems impossible without some movement in the decommissioning dispute, either from republicans or Unionists or both.

Most assembly members gave a standing ovation to Mr Trimble and the SDLP leader, John Hume, in recognition of their Nobel Peace Prize, but supporters of the Rev Ian Paisley and some other Unionists pointedly refrained.

During the day there sharp exchanges involving Mr Trimble's supporters, Paisleyites and Sinn Fein. Some Paisleyites created noise when nationalist assembly members spoke in the Irish language.

Meanwhile, the RUC announced the closure of the Westrock army base, the largest security fortification in west Belfast - a move welcomed by some nationalists as a gesture that might help improve the political climate.

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