Leaders to tackle deadlock in Ulster

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND party leaders will embark on a round of meetings this week aimed partly at making progress on the vexed issue of arms decommissioning, and on making arrangements for the new Belfast assembly.

However, any hopes for an early resolution of the decommissioning issue, which is proving a major stumbling block in the peace process, received a setback at Saturday's Ulster Unionist party conference.

Party leader David Trimble's insistence that he will not accept Sinn Fein in a new executive without IRA de-commissioning seemed to be set in concrete when the party almost unanimously passed a resolution to that effect. With Mr Trimble's apparent approval, the resolution in effect removed any room for manoeuvre on this issue. Although the conference is not a policy-making body, the party is now seen as having spoken with one voice on the matter.

One well-placed Unionist source said that feeling in the party was so solid that any U-turn on the issue by Mr Trimble would lead to him being deposed as leader within weeks.

The Assembly, meeting in Belfast today, will hear progress reports from Mr Trimble in his capacity as First Minister, and from his deputy, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP.

There will also be invitations to other party leaders to discuss the business of the Assembly.

While Mr Trimble has deliberately painted himself into a corner on decommissioning, the Republicans have done the same by saying, both privately and publicly, that there is no chance of any decommissioning in the coming months.

Republicans believe that decommissioning would create serious splits in their movement.

The two movements, Republican and Unionist, thus have a symmetry in their positions. Both profess to have no room for manoeuvre, yet logic dictates that at least one of them must compromise for the Good Friday Agreement to move ahead.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, conceded yesterday, while attending the EU summit in Austria, that the looming deadline for the next stage of the Northern Ireland peace process would not be met.

Mr Ahern also played down the likelihood of early progress on the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, one of the central demands of the Ulster Unionists.

After talks with Tony Blair during the summit, Mr Ahern told journalists that the target date of 31 October, by which time there should be agreement on the new north/south bodies, is now dead. "It clearly is not going to happen," he said.

In a comment that dealt a blow to Unionist hopes, reiterated over the weekend, on the handover of paramilitary weapons, the Irish prime minister said: "We are not going to see any decommissioning in the short-term."

Mr Ahern also argued that the focus should now be on the next big deadline set in the Good Friday Agreement of February next year for the establishment of the executive.

The two leaders met for 25 minutes on Saturday in the margins of a summit held at a Carinthian lakeside resort, but put a different gloss on the prognosis of the peace talks.

Mr Blair conceded that problems remain, but insisted that he had not given up on the 31 October deadline.

The Prime Minister told a news conference in Klagenfurt: "I haven't given up on 31 October as a deadline at all. Obviously there's a difficulty at the moment; we have to try and overcome that.

"The will is there to do it, we just have to be - as ever - creative and flexible about how we overcome the problems we have.

"I very much want to see us make progress on the north-south bodies and do it as soon as possible."