Arms agreement frees Stormont logjam

A rare instance of progress in the multi-party talks at Stormont yesterday led participants into their first substantive discussions on the issue of arms decommissioning, a move hailed as a modest breakthrough.

Although the talks have been under way since 10 June, the participants - the British and Irish governments and nine of Northern Ireland's 10 largest political groupings - had not previously reached agreement on rules and procedure.

The tenth party, Sinn Fein, is not in the talks. Seven of the nine parties signed up overnight to a compromise arrangement aimed at moving the talks on, though in the face of angry dissent from the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and another Unionist party. These denounced David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party for allegedly sidelining the arms issue.

Much of the argument of recent months has centred on the question of when the controversial decommissioning issue should be addressed, with Mr Paisley and others insisting it should be at the top of the agenda. The arrangement put into operation yesterday meant a debate on decommissioning began after less than an hour spent in discussion of a draft agenda.

The Ulster Unionist Party spokesman, Reg Empey, said last night: "We were accused of degrading decommissioning and putting it on the back burner - nothing of the case. The first item was the circulation of draft agendas for the substantive talks. That took a total of 31 minutes, then at 3pm we commenced the decommissioning debate."

One important effect of the new arrangement is that it makes it easier for the loyalist fringe parties to stay at the table. This is seen as a helpful factor in persuading loyalist paramilitary groups not to end their ceasefire.

The modest movement in the talks has at least had the effect of relieving fears that they would run into the sands by the end of this month without any progress having been made. The formula arrived at seems to assure their continuation for some time to come, although most participants say that rapid progress is not to be expected.

Lord Alderdice, leader of the moderate Alliance Party, said: "The progress was very important but one shouldn't over-state what was achieved. What we have now got is an agreement about how we talk about the agenda and how we talk about decommissioning. That's a step forward but it's not the kind of dreadfully dangerous betrayal that the DUP have suggested, not at all."

He added that he believed this stage of the talks would last for a few weeks.

n The Apprentice Boys of Derry, one of the Protestant marching organisations, have applied for permission to walk on Londonderry's city walls this weekend.

In August a crisis was averted when the organisation postponed plans for a similar parade. The Bogside Residents Group yesterday called on the marchers to open talks with local Catholics on the plans. The group said that if they did there was a very strong likelihood of agreement on the issue.

Leading article, page 15

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