Mowlam in plea over arms deadlock arms

THE GOVERNMENT yesterday urged David Trimble and Gerry Adams to agree some sort of compromise in a bid to end the paramilitary disarmament deadlock which is threatening the future of the Northern Ireland peace process.

With the republican leadership resisting Ulster Unionist pressure to begin getting rid of their weapons and explosives, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, admitted the 10 March deadline may not be met for the start of the transfer of legislative powers from London to Belfast.

All sides are due back at Stormont on Monday 15 February for a critical debate aimed at endorsing the creation of 10 ministerial departments as part of the devolved administration, and a number of cross-border bodies. But without any move by the Provisionals on decommissioning, Mr Trimble, the First Minister and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, will oppose the setting up of a ruling executive which would include two Sinn Fein representatives.

Tensions between rival pro- and anti-agreement republican factions, sectarian bombings by dissident loyalists and the increasing number of paramilitary punishment beatings - has heightened the pressure on London and Dublin to try and find a breakthrough.

Ms Mowlam insisted yesterday that the peace process was not unravelling, but admitted it was at a difficult stage which needed everyone to keep their nerve and for Unionists and republicans to reach a compromise on guns.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, decommissioning was not a precondition but an obligation. Senior republicans have, however, ruled out any chance of IRA disarmament at this stage - and with Mr Trimble having been warned by his own party that this is the one major issue on which he cannot, and must not give way, the peace process is edging into a critical phase.

The Prime Minister is desperate to negotiate a resolution ahead of another loyalist marching season, the forthcoming European elections and the publication of a report by an independent commission, headed by the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten on the future of the RUC and long-term policing arrangements.

Ms Mowlam, who is expected have a new round to talks with all the parties, accepted the timetable for change in Northern Ireland may fall behind.

She said: "We missed the Good Friday Agreement by a couple of days. We may well miss this. I'm aiming for it. The people are aiming for it, but nothing is written in stone. "

Meanwhile as another two victims of punishment beatings recovered yesterday, Ms Mowlam said the attacks would not halt the early releases of jailed paramilitants.

An 18-year-old girl needed treatment for cuts and bruises to her arms, legs and head when she was attacked with a baseball bat by armed men who broke into a house in a loyalist area of Belfast. Earlier, a 50-year- old man was beaten with a baseball bat and sticks when masked men forced their way into a house in Newtownabbey, another loyalist area.

Ms Mowlam told BBC's Breakfast With Frost programme yesterday: "Many of the beatings, not all, are carried out by people who are not on ceasefire and who don't want to see the process work. Stopping prisoner releases would achieve very little ... it would create the exact opposite and undermine the agreement."