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Politics - Northern Ireland: Terrorist releases `should now stop'

THE BI-PARTISAN approach to the Ulster peace process was in shambles yesterday as MPs blamed each other for the Unionist rejection of Tony Blair's plan for arms decommissioning.

Andrew Mackay, the Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman, came under fierce Labour attack when he urged the Government to "lay the blame fairly and squarely" for the failure to make progress with the loyalist and republican paramilitaries who had failed to decommission their arms.

"They are entirely to blame for the process not proceeding," Mr Mackay said, adding that the Government should "immediately halt" the early release of terrorist prisoners.

But Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, warned that the "last thing the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recriminations, because that is the one way you will guarantee that the whole process will unravel again".

In an emergency statement, she announced that there would be a review of the implementation of the Good Friday peace agreement after the failure to set up a devolved Northern Ireland executive.

"It will not be a review of the agreement itself, but of its implementation," she said. "Today is a setback. It would be foolish to deny that. But it would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday agreement cannot continue. We must continue to work to implement the agreement the people have approved."

She said the Northern Ireland Bill, which was rushed through the Commons on Tuesday and incorporates into law the so-called "failsafe" mechanisms on decommissioning and devolution, would not be withdrawn. "I still believe the Way Forward is a balanced approach which could have succeeded. But I don't seek to blame any party in the House this afternoon. The reality is that we either move forward together, or we do not move forward at all.

"We aren't going to hold the fragile ceasefires that we have at the moment if we then start a whole exercise in this House today of calling people as to who we think is to blame," she said.

However, Lembit Opik, for the Liberal Democrats, attacked Mr Mackay's stance throughout the negotiations, claiming: "It may in fact be the case that comments in this chamber have made it exceedingly difficult for some Northern Ireland politicians who desperately do want to make progress to actually do so, as a result of what they have had to justify from this chamber."

Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, echoed his criticism, saying the impression was that "old Unionism" was only interested in a union with the UK if "we will send troops to support them but not if they are asked to sit down with the Catholic community on the basis of equality". He added: "If the emphasis now moves to London and Dublin running a condominium in Northern Ireland, that is the first stage towards to what many people, including myself have believed all my life, that the Irish people will have to settle their own future."

Kevin McNamara, Labour MP for Hull North and former Northern Ireland spokesman, said there had been attempts to alter the Good Friday Agreement: "The Tories, in conjunction with the Ulster Unionists, sought to cherry- pick and alter it and seek to change it and bring in fresh conditions and, as much as anything, the Tories are responsible for bolstering up the Ulster Unionists in their rejection of it. That has always been their policy and many of us believed from the start that they had never any intention of coming to any sort of agreement."

The Rev Martin Smyth, the UUP MP for Belfast South, said that Unionists had never shared Mr Blair's belief that republicans were ready to disarm. "There's no evidence that there's been a seismic change in republican thinking," he said.