Northern Ireland poised for new elections despite lack of agreement

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The Independent Online

New elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are likely to be called early next week, with last-minute efforts continuing over the weekend to reach agreement between republicans and Unionists.

Although the Government has been hoping for a pre-election understanding embracing Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists, a breakthrough has yet to be achieved. The republican leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met Tony Blair and his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, at Downing Street yesterday as the search for an advance continued.

Mr Adams is due to meet the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, this morning for the latest in a series of encounters which have been going on for some weeks. As the frequency of contact suggests, republicans and Unionists are said to have had a positive engagement, but agreement has been elusive.

The IRA and Sinn Fein are under pressure, from Mr Blair and Mr Trimble, to carry out a new act of arms commissioning and to use language indicating that the IRA's paramilitary activities will come to an end. Work on proposed texts has been going on but so far there is no sign that any proposed new republican language has been judged sufficient. The IRA is also being urged to undertake a third act of decommissioning and to do so in a more visible way than previously.

It is assumed that decommissioning will be an important part of any deal, though republicans argue that some form of televised arms destruction is out of the question as it would imply a kind of surrender.

Sinn Fein for its part is pushing for assurance that the Belfast Assembly, which is currently in suspension, would not be closed down as has happened several times in the past.

Republicans also want security and police powers to be transferred as quickly as possible from Westminster to Belfast, a demand which poses problems for both the Government and the Ulster Unionists.

If no deal emerges over the weekend, the likelihood is that the Government will call elections for November. The sense is that while it would be far preferable to go to the polls with a deal, having no elections at all would practically ensure political stultification. Sinn Fein and most nationalist elements favour an election but Mr Trimble may not be so keen. Last spring he prevailed on Mr Blair not to call a poll.

The outcome of an election is difficult to predict because of a battle within Unionism between Mr Trimble and the Rev Ian Paisley, who has made significant voting advances in recent years. Michael McGimpsey, a senior Ulster Unionist, accused the Democratic Unionists last night of planning a "divisive, abusive and selfish" campaign.

Sinn Fein will also be pushing to overtake the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the principal representatives of northern nationalism.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, will be involved in the weekend negotiations and President George Bush's special envoy, Richard Haass, arrives in Belfast on Monday .

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