Strains show in peace process

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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace process showed ominous signs of strain yesterday as Tony Blair's round of talks with political parties in Belfast served to expose differences between important elements.

In particular, David Trimble, the First Minister designate, differed sharply and publicly with his deputy, Seamus Mallon, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, on how to move the process forward.

When Mr Mallon signalled that he believed movement within 10 days was all but imperative, Mr Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, castigated him for what he described as unhelpfully generating artificial deadlines.

A clear fault-line has thus developed between the two key political figures, who are supposed to be working together to make the peace process succeed. While they have diverged before now, it has become obvious that they have proved unable to reconcile their positions on a crucial and fundamental issue.

Mr Blair spent much of the day meeting a succession of parties before journeying to Dublin where today he will address a joint meeting of the two houses of the Irish parliament. The Prime Minister said later that he had had a good series of discussions, and that progress could be made.

He added: "I want all this Agreement implemented as soon as possible. All the issues connected with decommissioning and the executive were talked about, we thrashed through them.

"I'm going to do everything I can to push it on, to keep the momentum going forward, because I know the people out there are just desperate for this thing to work. I'm going to keep on this very, very hard indeed over these coming days."

Mr Trimble and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, meanwhile exchanged attacks during the day, the Unionist leader saying society had invested too much in the process "to allow it to be destroyed by a handful of unreconstructed militarists in the republican movement". Mr Adams, in turn, accused Unionists of attempting to exercise a veto, and of "childish tactics, childish antics and blatant stalling tactics".

Earlier, Mr Mallon had warned that unless real progress was made very soon "then the potential for this whole experiment to crack up is much greater than people realise". Unless there was movement, the process would be in great danger of losing credibility, he added.

Mr Trimble's response was to declare: "It is not helpful to generate a sense of crisis where none exists. Nor is it helpful to try to generate artificial deadlines when there aren't deadlines in the process." The Unionist leader later added, in what appeared to be an attempt to soothe things down, that periodic disagreements between himself and Mr Mallon were only to be expected.

Les Rodgers, chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Federation, said Mr Blair had been shocked and taken aback by the plight of police families.

He added: "I think he had his eyes opened. I don't think he realised to what depth people would go to intimidate officers and their families - blast bombs and petrol bombs thrown at houses, thugs gathering outside houses, all while the men were away at Drumcree."