Splits open among Ulster Unionists

Northern Ireland agreement: Parties focus on assembly elections as young are helped to look to the future
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ARMS de-commissioning and the divisions in the Ulster Unionist party surfaced in Northern Ireland yesterday, as all sides positioned themselves for assembly elections next month.

Those speaking for loyalist paramilitary groups made it clear, in much the same terms as republicans have already done, that the authorities are likely to wait in vain for any de-commissioning of weaponry soon.

Unionist party members do not regard the war against the Good Friday agreement to be over in political terms.

On de-commissioning, leaders of the Ulster Democratic party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, had what was described as a constructive meeting with John de Chastelain, the Canadian general who heads the international body on de-commissioning.

Gary McMichael, the UDP laeder, said: "It would be ambitious to expect loyalist paramilitaries to give up their weapons before the IRA has said it is prepared to give up arms."

Mr McMichael said the meeting had been constructive and another would be held soon.

"This is all part of the ongoing process. We have always taken a responsible attitude on this issue, but people should not expect loyalists to decommission while the IRA remain fully armed and have not even declared the end of the conflict," he said.

"We would like the IRA to declare the war is over. If they did then it would clear the way for progress."

Francie Molloy, a Sinn Fein councillor, said it was unlikely the IRA would hand over any guns or explosives, adding: "The IRA haven't been defeated and unless you have the defeat of one organisation over the other or one government over another then you don't have a surrender of weapons."

Legislation passed in Parliament last year provided immunity from prosecution to people handing over weapons to the security forces.

Since no such handover seems likely, however, the question is regarded as academic.

The decision by the Ulster Unionists not to allow Jeffrey Donaldson, the anti-agreement MP, to stand for the assemblywas attacked by John Hunter, who also oposed the deal and who has already secured an assembly nomination.

In a quietly combative BBC interview, Mr Hunter said splits were developing in the party, saying the Donaldson decision had been a mistake, which showed there were those in the party who were not interested in unity.

He added: "Jeffrey Donaldson reached out the hand of friendship, saying he wanted to see party unity. This is hardly the best way to display party unity."

Mr Hunter's intervention is seen as a clear sign that elements in David Trimble's party do not accept the referendum result as final, and may become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the party line.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is due in Belfast again next week. He will also go to Dublin for the first time since taking office. The assembly elections will be held on June 25.