Ulster: history is on hold - again

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The Independent Online

One of the wheels spun off the Irish peace process wagon in Belfast last night, causing a potentially momentous day to degenerate into an unexpected shambles.

Frantic efforts were being made to get the process back on the road after David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, temporarily called a halt, shattering a carefully planned series of events.

A large amount of material decommissioned by the IRA yesterday was understood to have included Semtex plastic explosive, RPG-7 rockets, mortars and AK-47 rifles. But Mr Trimble and his party reacted badly when General John de Chastelain, who witnessed the event, declined to go into detail on the material. The Canadian general said: "The arms comprise light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions. They include automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives and explosive material."

Mr Trimble had been scheduled to give a welcome to the decommissioning act; a pacific speech earlier in the day by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein; and fresh elections called by Tony Blair for 26 November. Instead the sequence of events stopped. Mr Trimble complained that transparency in the decommissioning was lacking and said he would call a party meeting for next week. He said: "We had made it very clear to republicans and to the governments and to General de Chas-telain what we needed was a clear, transparent report of major acts of decommissioning."

The day was designed to show that Mr Trimble and Mr Adams had reached an amicable agreement, with the blessing of London and Dublin, so that the elections had a real prospect of leading to a new power-sharing government. Instead, the breakdown left Mr Trimble's opponents jubilant. The party critic Jeffrey Donaldson MP said: "David Trimble has been hung up to dry by the IRA. We are facing a really tough election - I don't know how we are going to explain this to the electorate."

Mr Blair described the problem as a "glitch" that he was confident could be resolved. "We can find a way through this, but it is going to take us a little time to do that," he said. "We are very, very close to what I think would be a quite historic day for Northern Ireland. But the Unionist Party want to have a far greater degree of particularity as to what was actually put beyond use."

Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, said: "We had a sequence that was going very well but there is a difficulty, an obstacle that we have to try to resolve."

General de Chastelain, who has been involved for eight years in Northern Ireland, looked tired when he said he could not say how long the decommissioning process would last. "We have put it to the IRA, how long are we going to be here? They could not answer. They say it's tied to the political process in which we [the commission] do not play a part.

"I would like to have seen the whole issue of decommissioning handled much faster by both the loyalist and republican groups. I can't say when it is going to finish, but I believe it will proceed more swiftly as the politicians get to grips with the problems."

The widespread sense was that not enough may have been done to revive the flagging electoral fortunes of Mr Trimble, whose survival is viewed as vital to the survival of the peace process in its present form.

A vital early test of the Protestant community's verdict will come in the Assembly election. The anxiety is that the IRA initiative, even with clarification, might not be enough to halt the drift of support away from Mr Trimble, which has been evident for several years. He has lost much ground to the Rev Ian Paisley's hardline Democratic Unionist Party, while within his own Ulster Unionist Party he faces constant opposition.

If a Paisley-Donaldson alliance in the new Assembly outnumbers the Trimble forces, the Assembly will face deadlock and crisis, since there is no chance of dominant Paisleyites agreeing to form a new power-sharing administration.

The scale of republican moves surprised many observers, who expected more, since Mr Trimble had personally worked out details of the deal with Mr Adams. It was also approved by the British and Irish governments. Instead of a triumphant Mr Trimble claiming credit for drawing the IRA's fangs, what emerged were reports of disappointment in his party at what had been negotiated.

The initiative was designed to break the deadlock that has seen the Assembly suspended for slightly more than a year. Mr Blair in particular has been adamant that, despite the comparatively peaceful summer, the political vacuum is potentially dangerous.