Hain flies to Belfast in new bid to revive peace process

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Indy Politics

Fresh efforts to revive the Northern Ireland peace process begin today with the arrival in Belfast of a new Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, and the departure of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Fresh efforts to revive the Northern Ireland peace process begin today with the arrival in Belfast of a new Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, and the departure of the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Mr Trimble, whose party suffered a crushing election defeat at the hands of the Rev Ian Paisley, is to hold a farewell news conference this morning after announcing his intention to resign on Saturday.

The choice of a successor may take about a month, but the party was so flattened by the Paisley steamroller in the election that many in politics believe it scarcely matters who takes over. The party, which a decade ago had 10 Westminster seats, has been left with only one. Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party won half of Northern Ireland's 18 seats.

Mr Hain's central task is to discover whether Mr Paisley will be willing to thrash out a deal with Sinn Fein. The republicans emerged from the contest with an extra seat, confirming their status as the primary voice of Northern Ireland's nationalists.

As the unchallenged champion of Unionism, Mr Paisley will try to exact a high price for his co-operation in future negotiations. At the same time, he is well aware that Sinn Fein, which took a fraction under a quarter of the total Northern Ireland vote, are his only viable coalition partners.

Between them, republicans and the DUP took 58 per cent of the vote, a figure which demonstrates their strength and dictates that any new government will have to include both parties. The formidable task will be to find an arrangement which stands a chance of suiting both sides.

The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party survived an electoral onslaught from Sinn Fein and still has three seats, but the republicans continue to hold pole position.

A report, due later this month, is expected to say the IRA is still recruiting and training. Mr Paisley's price for entry into a new government is expected to include verification that such activities have ceased.

Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, has called on the IRA to make a ground-breaking statement in the near future. Mr Hain will hope this will be significant enough to reinvigorate a peace process which was effectively put on hold during the election campaign.

At the weekend, both he and Tony Blair paid tribute to Mr Trimble, the Prime Minister saying that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could not have been concluded without him.

Mr Hain, who had weekend telephone conversations with major players, including Mr Paisley and Mr Adams, said that Northern Ireland has had seven years of peace, stability and increasing prosperity, and a change in the political culture.

He added: "But there has been increasing polarisation in the outcome of the election. I want to work very actively to try and get this peace agreement back on the road to a permanent settlement. The Prime Minister told me on Friday night when he appointed me that it was an absolute priority for him. We are determined to take it forward and you just need to keep rebuilding the trust."

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