Irish leaders shake hands across a 30-year divide

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The Independent Online


Dozens of curious faces crowded around eagerly to watch as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party sat down beneath the portrait of Catholic emancipator Daniel O'Connell in Dublin's Mansion House, home of the Lord Mayor, to sign the visitors' book.

He smiled but betrayed no hint of mischief as he wrote: "David Trimble, Lisburn, County Antrim, UK". It was his strongest statement in a day of tentative handshakes and controlled language.

The first meeting between an Irish Prime Minister and an Ulster Unionist leader in Dublin's Government Buildings, and the first formal contact at this level since Terence O'Neill held sway in Stormont 30 years ago, began with the Ulsterman marking the Southerners' card.

Accompanied by his deputy leader John Taylor, and security spokesman Ken Maginnis, Mr Trimble hosted a reception to launch a 50-page Unionist leaflet - An Economics Lesson for Irish Nationalists and Republicans - which argues that with a IRpounds 30bn (pounds 31bn) foreign debt the Irish Republic is in no financial state to afford a united Ireland.

The guest list included the normally vociferous nationalist Fianna Fail members, together with Mary O'Rourke, Ray Burke and other ex-cabinet ministers. All trooped in, cheerfully swallowing their ideologies for the occasion. Orange and green, in the shape of Mr Trimble and Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern - after a nervous pause - shook hands on the Mansion House steps.

Over lunch with the Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, Mr Trimble discussed progress on the peace process, but, on emerging, declined to endorse Mr Bruton's claim last Friday that a breakthrough enabling all-party talks to begin was "tantalisingly" close. "I wouldn't use that word," he cautioned. Later, Mr Ahern said Mr Trimble seemed not to believe that the talks could begin this year.

The Taoiseach's optimism had become more guarded since Friday. He said there was no value in setting dates for all- party talks which could themselves become an inhibition, but said: "More people are talking to other people than was the case a few months ago... inexorably we are moving towards an all-inclusive dialogue." He added: "On the arms issue, Mr Trimble avoided taking a firm position. But in stating that his views were well-known, he offered no hint of diluting his demand that IRA weapons be decommissioned before Sinn Fein could enter all-party talks."

He cited the terms of Paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration, that "people establish their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods... they've got to prove that they are committed, and it is very difficult to see how that can be done without satisfactorily resolving the weapons issue".

Mr Trimble said the talks had been "much more positive and constructive" than those held during the Dublin Castle contacts in 1992. He also exchanged views with the two Dail Opposition leaders, Mr Ahern and Mary Harney of the centre-right Progressive Democrats.

The sizeable Unionist delegation created a more positive mood over the lunch, suggesting areas of greater communication, and hinting at Unionist entry soon into the British-Irish Parliamentary body, which they have until now boycotted in protest at the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

One loud Unionist voice was missing however. From Belfast, the Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley rejected Mr Trimble's detente with the South as "futile" and warned that it "could weaken the union".