Unionists seized on new uncertainty over the chairmanship of the committee to oversee arms decommissioning, and suggestions that the favoured candidate, Canadian general John de Chastelain, may be ditched. If that happens, it would be a pretext for Ulster Unionists, who support General de Chastelain's candidature, to bail out of the round-table all-party talks.
John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, yesterday accused the Irish government of seeking to block General de Chastelain because of his tough line on arms decommissioning. Mr Taylor said: "Dublin is trying to get rid of him as chairman of the body. They have been trying to undermine him."
The charge, repeated by one British source, was rejected by Irish government sources who said that any problems arose from technical difficulties surrounding the general's role.
A government source confirmed there was still diplomatic "quibbling" over the chairmanship , which Unionists see as essential to their participation intalks. Canada, Finland and the US, the countries involved in the decommissioning process, have all been asked to put up candidates. No new names have come into the frame, leaving an unresolved difficulty.
The problem caused surprise among observers who, for several months, have seen the Canadian general as the natural candidate to chair the committee. But Downing Street refused to confirm or deny rumours that the general would not be given the task as expected.
Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will hope to finalise the issue at a meeting with the Irish Foreign Minister, Ray Burke, on Tuesday.
Under existing proposals the chairman of the decommissioning body cannot also chair strand two of the talks, on North-South relations. That means that a replacement would have to be found , with US Senator George Mitchell possibly filling the role. General de Chastelain has, however, been the subject of adverse publicity over the behaviour of his country's troops in Somalia. Downing Street last night denied that Tony Blair had plans to meet Gerry Adams soon - a meeting which, one report suggested, would result from Sinn Fein's inclusion in talks. The political turbulence, two days ahead of a meeting between the British and Irish ministers in Belfast, threatens to overshadow the Government's formal judgement on the IRA's ceasefire.
That decision is likely to be made public later this week after six weeks of the ceasefire. Dr Mowlam is obliged to make a statement under the 1996 legislation covering the negotiations. She must specify which parties have met the criteria to take part.
Talks begin formally on 6 September, with the first political session due to take place on the 15th. The Unionists, undecided whether to join, yesterday said the continuing uncertainty over decommissioning worsened the prospects of inclusive face-to-face talks. Mr Taylor appeared to endorse the prospects that his party would take place in "proximity talks" - staying part of the process but not sitting round a table with Sinn Fein. He said: "It is improbable ... that the Ulster Unionists will be at round-table talks involving Sinn Fein. We will continue to talk with our own government, the government of the south and all the constitutional parties."Reuse content