Nationalists warn on assembly link

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Ireland Correspondent

Nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland warned at the weekend against building a new elected assembly into any formula designed to resolve the issue of arms decommissioning.

With the international body examining the issue due to report later this week, Sinn Fein and the SDLP leader, John Hume, both made clear that they were completely opposed to the idea and would almost certainly boycott such an institution. Their statements follow indications that the body, which is headed by a former American senator, George Mitchell, has been closely studying the idea of such an assembly.

The idea of an assembly appears to be favoured by the British government, which has reportedly drawn up reports on various types of assembly and how it might be elected.

The idea was put forward by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who held out the prospect of his party sitting in such an institution with Sinn Fein, even if the IRA had not decommissioned arms. The idea also chimes with suggestions put forward by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and by the moderate Alliance Party. The issue has divided pro- union parties and nationalists along a clear fault-line. The nationalists are clearly anxious to prevent Mr Mitchell and his colleagues from recommending the idea.

The pace of work of the international body quickened rapidly at the weekend, with its report due to be given to the British and Irish governments on Thursday or Friday of this week. Yesterday its three members again met the Alliance Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, a fringe grouping linked to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. On Saturday they met the SDLP.

Today they are due to meet the Ulster Unionist party and the Northern Ireland Office minister, Michael Ancram. They have already met John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr Mitchell said at the weekend that his team had not yet made any decisions or reached any conclusions. Meanwhile on another front, on Wednesday Sinn Fein is due to take part in the first tripartite meeting involving the republicans and the British and Irish governments. This is part of a range of meetings designed to pave the way for eventual all-party negotiations, though these remain dependent on the resolution of the de-commissioning issue.

In rejecting an assembly Mr Hume said: "It would turn into a shouting match - we've had it all before." He added: "There is no way we would consider an elected body as a means of starting the dialogue, because it will only make the dialogue much more difficult and make it virtually impossible to reach agreement."

Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, declared: "It's a non-runner. This is not 1920, this is 1996. As far as we are concerned, any return to an assembly, or any variation of the proposal, is a stalling or a stringing out of this process." Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, added: "We will have absolutely nothing to do with such a body."

However, an opinion poll indicated that Unionist and nationalist voters appeared to take different views from those of their political representatives. According to the poll, published in the Dublin Sunday Tribune, 68 per cent of nationalists agreed with an elected assembly, while only 28 per cent of Unionists thought it a good idea.

The survey also showed a marked difference of opinion on the question of whether the republican and loyalist ceasefires were permanent.

Some 69 per cent of nationalists believed that the truces were, but only 38 per cent of Unionists.