Northern Ireland: Blair proposal for Ulster collapses

Recriminations fly as talks falter while republicans clarify unsolved case of `disappeared' woman
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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace process was awash with recrimination yesterday at the end of a week which brought not the breakthrough anticipated but further stalemate and barely veiled accusations of bad faith.

Although almost everyone involved in the process believes it will eventually be rescued and placed back on track, it was generally regarded as a bad week which eroded the already short supply of political trust and produced further delays.

The prevailing view is that a deal which Tony Blair believed he had stitched together in an early-morning session on Thursday collapsed in the face of an attack of backbench Unionist jitters.

An early recovery of momentum seems unlikely, given that the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, yesterday flew out on a visit to America and Europe which will keep him out of Northern Ireland until Monday week.

Before leaving, the First Minister delivered criticism directed at the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, asserting: "We had, I thought, broken the back of the matter on Wednesday night and could look forward on Thursday to sorting out the detail, and we were quite astonished when we were presented with fresh demands in the course of Thursday, followed by a refusal to negotiate."

The nationalist accusation, however, is that Mr Trimble reneged on a deal brokered by Mr Blair. The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, said yesterday: "People did not honour their word. That's putting it as mildly as I possibly can. There is very substantial anger among the other political parties at the way in which the Ulster Unionist Party seems to have walked away from an arrangement it had made."

This version was supported by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. He said that when Mr Blair had told him, "There will be an agreement by tonight," he had told the Prime Minister: "Don't bet on it. In your absence the Unionists will seek to unravel all of this." Mr Adams added: "The Unionists, when Mr Blair was here, went technically through the motions, and when he went away they unravelled them."

Meanwhile, a reminder of continuing communal tensions was delivered at Drumcree near Portadown in Co Armagh on Thursday night when 10 Royal Ulster Constabulary officers were injured in clashes with loyalists. The loyalists were taking part in an escalation of continuing protests against July's ban on an Orange Order march along the Catholic Garvaghy Road.

Some of the thousand-strong crowd threw bricks,wooden stakes and fireworks at police who replied by firing a plastic bullet. David Jones, spokesman for the Order, said: "The situation can be resolved when the parade gets down the road. We intend to continue the protest until we get down Garvaghy Road."

The RUC dismissed as nonsense an Orange Order claim that police were to blame for the disturbances, adding: "Decent people have to ask where the iron bars, the cudgels, the masked men and the fireworks or worse came from, when such events were supposed to be peaceful protests."