Peace process falters over arms

George Mitchell, talks chairman, (right) is 'pleased the rules have been adopted'. But David Ervine of the PUP (left) says violence is still a threat
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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland peace talks adjourned last night after parties failed to resolve the potentially fatal deadlock surrounding the decommissioning of terrorist weapons.

Following the ratification of rules and procedures for multi-party negotiations at Stormont, delegates agreed to break up for the summer rather than risk a total breakdown over discussions on the substantive agenda when they resume in September.

The adjournment, ahead of schedule, means the vexed issue of terrorist weapons will remain to be hammered out before real negotiations can start. After the end of discussions last night, the talks chairmen, including former US senator George Mitchell, who has returned to the US because of a family bereavement, issued a statement hoping that parties could "reflect" on the progress made and stating that they still considered the negotiations the best hope for a peace settlement.

As he left, Mr Mitchell described as "unfounded" reports that he was quitting and said he looked forward to returning in September: "I am pleased that the rules and procedures have been adopted," he said. "... I'm pleased that the participants will now be able to move beyond this discussion and on to the agenda and then on to substantive and meaningful negotiations."

The Ulster Unionists, who along with fellow Unionist parties had wanted to set up a working party to discuss decommissioning, agreed to defer the issue rather than face a possible breakdown in talks in the face of strong opposition from the nationalist SDLP and fringe loyalist parties.

However, the early adjournment until 9 September is seen by many observers as merely delaying a likely breakdown in talks over decommissioning. The parties also agreed to set up a business committee to sort out procedural wrangles in the future.

One source close to the talks last night said: "The delegates were tired and the general feeling was that it was better to adjourn now with some agreement rather than risk a major problem in the talks at this delicate stage." Earlier, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which has links with the Ulster Volunteer Force loyalist paramilitaries, warned that violence would resume if the issue of decommissioning was tackled in isolation.

"I fear the atmosphere is so polluted in Northern Ireland, and there is such a fear of a resumption of serious violence, that any hope or opportunity of even engaging in discussion about decommissioning at this time by those who are purported to be the representatives of those with guns would be deeply debilitating," Mr Ervine told BBC Radio 4's World at One.

However, the SDLP is adamant that decommissioning be discussed alongside, and not before, full talks. This stance has found unusual backers in two small loyalist parties, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and the PUP. They are angry that decommissioning would effectively hamper loyalists and leave them open to violence from the IRA who are not party to the talks and who have ended their cease-fire.

Gary McMichael, of the loyalist UDP, said: "It is a disgrace that Unionist parties are arguing that the loyalists be left defenceless under the shadow of the current and very serious IRA threat to the loyalist community."

The question of decommissioning is emerging as the fault- line on which the talks could founder. Unionists fear that the SDLP, backed by the Irish government, are looking to revive a pan-nationalist movement and may use decommissioning as a pretext to end the talks and instead seek an imposed settlement worked out by the British and Irish governments.

The SDLP on the other hand believes Unionists are trying to make the talks concentrate solely on decommissioning, which they will use as a stick to beat the nationalist stance. Sinn Fein is not represented at the talks because of the end of the IRA cease-fire.

The extent of the pressure on the uneasy loyalist cease-fire was highlighted by an apparent statement by the mid-Ulster brigade of the UVF, which claimed that the PUP and UDP were, in effect, supporting the pan-nationalist front at the negotiations.