In spite of the Secretary of State's assurances, the Northern Ireland Bill appeared to be heading for rejection by the Unionists, after David Trimble, the UUP's leader, bitterly denounced the Government's "failsafe" guarantee for IRA disarmament.
Mr Trimble, the First Minister, said the mechanism drawn up to ensure Sinn Fein would not be able to sit in a new power-sharing executive if the IRA did not hand in its weapons was "flawed and unfair".
The Bill could remain on the statute book to be carried out when an agreement is reached, but if the Unionists refuse tomorrow to nominate their team to serve with Sinn Fein on the executive, the British and Irish governments will have to return to the drawing board. Sources at Westminster were refusing to rule out the possibility of a second referendum in Northern Ireland to appeal over the heads of the UUP leaders.
Mr Trimble, who is under pressure from his own party not to give too much ground to Sinn Fein, appealed for more time from the Government. It is possible he will try to avoid the Ulster Unionists being blamed for taking the peace process to the brink of collapse by not issuing a clear-cut rejection at tonight's meeting in Belfast.
However, sources close to Mr Trimble said last night that the safeguards offered by Ms Mowlam, in probably her last major speech before being moved by Tony Blair in the cabinet reshuffle, were not enough. "There doesn't seem much possibility of it getting through the executive," a source said.
The Ulster Unionists joined the Conservatives in a vain attempt to force through greater safeguards in the Northern Ireland Bill - to provide a legislative timetable for decommissioning, an automatic power to expel Sinn Fein from the power-sharing executive if the IRA failed to make progress within weeks on decommissioning, and a halt to prisoner releases if Sinn Fein defaulted on its commitments to the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government refused to accept the amendments, but Ms Mowlam made clear that if the independent commissioner on decommissioning, General John de Chastelain, found that the IRA had failed to start destroying its weapons "within weeks", the Northern Ireland Assembly would have a vote to expel Sinn Fein. And on prisoner releases, she gave Mr Trimble the assurance that she would have to take into account whether the ceasefires were holding before allowing releases to continue. But a government source said: "We can't go beyond what is in the Good Friday Agreement. If we did we would lose Sinn Fein."
Even as Unionists were complaining about the Bill, republicans in Belfast were making clear that they disliked the thrust of the proposed legislation which, they claimed, was outside the terms of the Agreement. They claimed that the Unionists were suffering from "reluctance and paranoia" and that Tony Blair was conceding too much in an effort to assuage their concerns.
There are certainly worries within the republicans' support base that Sinn Fein and the IRA might be giving too much away on the decommissioning issue, although the doubts in those quarters seem to amount to much less of a problem than those being experienced within Unionism.
Sinn Fein's Assembly chief whip, Alex Maskey, said: "The people I have spoken to in the last couple of days and this morning are absolutely furious at the way the British government is pandering to Unionism at this difficult time... [Unionism] has displayed nothing but total negativity."
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, meanwhile urged Unionists to go for the deal on offer, saying that to turn it down would be "a mistake of historic proportions". Writing in today's Irish Times, Mr Ahern said: "Decommissioning by May 2000 is part of the bargain. An executive is being formed on the clear understanding that part of the bargain will be kept. The Irish government is firmly convinced it will be. On the other hand, we cannot assume that decommissioning will ever take place, let alone by May 2000, if an inclusive government is not established.
"Voluntary disarmament will be a unique event in Irish history. We should not dismiss lightly a serious commitment to it, which will require, on an ongoing basis, much courageous leadership."
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