Talks try again to break decommissioning deadlock

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland party leaders will travel to Downing Street today in an atmosphere of distinct pessimism as Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, launch the latest effort to solve the devolution and decommissioning conundrum.

The two governments have set 22 May as the working deadline for agreement in a new round of negotiations. This is the second anniversary of the referendums that endorsed the Good Friday Agreement.

Under the terms of the Agreement, decommissioning was supposed to be completed by this date. But London, Dublin and everyone else have concluded there is no chance of decommissioning starting, still less concluding, by that date.

The theory underlying the present exercise is that if the IRA will not decommission up-front it may instead be prepared to given firm assurances that the arms issue will be dealt with at a future stage. This means forming a new government on the basis of an IRA promise that arms will not be used and will eventually be put beyond use.

Much of the pessimism in the air derives from the fact that the grass roots of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party appear absolutely insistent that the party will not join a new government without actual de-commissioning at that point.

The new round of talks that begins today is the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to clear up the arms question. The general feeling is that each failure makes subsequent efforts harder still.

At the same time, some hope is drawn from the fact that neither the Sinn Fein nor Ulster Unionist leaderships have any more attractive options than the peace process, so that both can be expected to apply themselves seriously to the search for an accommodation.

All sides are aware that the Orange marching season is looming, and that with it comes a rise in communal tensions, which makes the search for compromise even more difficult. No settlement has been reached of the Drumcree confrontation, which has caused serious trouble for the past five years, and there are rumblings from the locality that militant action is being considered by loyalist protesters.

In another of the sad hangovers of the heyday of the Troubles, the search is to be restarted today for the bodies of six IRA victims who were killed and buried secretly years ago. Police in the republic are to begin digging at five sites.

Last year, excavations were carried on for five weeks at a number of locations after the IRA gave information on the location of bodies. Three were found during that exercise.

The SDLP leader, John Hume, was awarded the freedom of Londonderry at a reception in the city's Guildhall last night, with some Unionists boycotting the ceremony. Mr Hume was awarded the Nobel peace prize last year.

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