Ulster hopes fade after Trimble and Adams fail to reach deal

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Hopes of a pre-election deal between Unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland all but vanished last night when the two sides failed to agree on guns and government.

Barring last-minute surprises, the Ulster Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments were all resigned that a breakthrough was not a possibility.

The failure to clinch a deal is viewed as a serious setback to prospects of putting together a new powersharing government after the Belfast Assembly elections are held on 26 November.

Although each blamed the other last night, recriminations between the two parties remained at a noticeably non- confrontational level. Both are evidently aware that, despite the difficulties, they would have to do business with each other after the poll.

But there was no mistaking the keenness of the disappointment among all participants in the peace process that agreement had eluded them.

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, and David Trimble, leader of the UUP, were said to have made considerable attempts to make a breakthrough during a day of negotiations on Sunday.

Mr Adams put forward suggestions aimed at dealing with the Unionist call for more information and transparency about the act of IRA decommissioning, which took place early last week. But these were not enough for Mr Trimble, who made counter-suggestions that were, in turn, not acceptable to republicans.

One observer said: "It was so near and yet so far. What was on offer on Sunday would have stood a good chance earlier but the Unionists were spooked by last week's fiasco."

Mr Trimble now faces an election campaign in which his critics will portray him as a poor negotiator, though he will argue that he pressured the IRA into decommissioning a third batch of its weaponry.

Republicans, meanwhile, have delivered more armaments as well as ground- breaking rhetoric from Mr Adams but have not, in turn, received the concessions they expected from Mr Trimble. They had been hoping to return to government in the newly elected Assembly but the poll is now expected by most to deliver a result that could bring further deadlock.

If this happens, the Government is expected to announce a review, which, in effect, means yet another bout of negotiation. The authorities will hope that the election campaign will not be too acrimonious and that the progress already made can be banked.

Agreements reached on ancillary but important issues - such as policing, demilitarisation and allowing republicans wanted by the law to return to Northern Ireland - will not be disclosed until after the Assembly election.

Mr Trimble said last night that, if republicans changed their minds and indicated within hours that they would accept his proposals, "we would roll with them".

But he added: "What we do not have is transparency. What we do not have is a sense that things are coming to a completion. With the elections being called and the inexorable movement of the election timetable, obviously we may be in a position where we cannot do anything further.

"There isn't unfortunately time at the moment to sort all these matters out. Who knows, had there been another few days or a week available that might have been possible."

Mr Adams said he valued the relationship that had developed between himself and Mr Trimble but added: "I am bitterly disappointed with the fact they have aborted the process.

"We were trying to bring about a situation where the elections would lead to uninterrupted sustainable institutions. Republicans have deliv- ered and delivered big time."

Jane Kennedy, Northern Ireland Office minister at Westminster, rejected Conservative claims that Tony Blair misled MPs last week by giving the impression that he was privy to more information about the decommissioning act than was known publicly.