Ulster parties to reject deadline for peace

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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland peace process will suffer a double blow today as both republicans and Unionists refuse to give a positive response to the latest package aimed at salvaging the Good Friday Agreement.

The Ulster Unionists are certain to reject the latest Anglo-Irish proposals tonight, at least in their present form, on the grounds that the IRA has failed to make a significant gesture on the key question of weapons decommissioning.

To compound the woes of the British and Irish governments, which had set a deadline of today for parties to respond to the initiative, a statement expected today from the Provisional IRA is likely to agree only with Sinn Fein that more information is needed about last week's rescue document.

Yesterday, as police attempted to complete their search for evidence at the scene of last week's bomb attack in Ealing, west London, John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, called on all parties in the province not to allow the Real IRA to succeed in derailing the peace process.

However, the statutory deadline for securing the future of the Belfast assembly is looming with little prospect of the parties agreeing on a formula. By next weekend the Government will be obliged to either suspend the assembly or call fresh elections. While there is speculation that Tony Blair will opt for an election, he could play for time through a form of suspension.

Sinn Fein insists that before giving a full response to the document it should be given the 70-page policing implementation plan, which the Government has drawn up but not issued. It also wants to see a new document on the criminal justice system, which is not yet due for publication.

The IRA has closely tied any prospect of decommissioning its weapons to receiving precise commitments on policing and demilitarisation. Any offer it may make as an advance on its position can be expected to depend on tying down such details.

The Ulster Unionists, whose party officers are to meet this evening, are pressing above all else for decommissioning. In its absence, there is no chance of the UUP leader, David Trimble, agreeing to take up the office of First Minister, which he vacated at the beginning of last month. Since republicans and Unionists have both laid out conditions for movement, London and Dublin will be considering whether a breakthrough is possible this week, or whether the most they can hope for is a soft landing for the assembly.

The rejectionist tendency within the Ulster Unionists is pressing hard for the party to turn down the package, with the MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside predicting that it will be deemed unacceptable. Mr Donaldson said yesterday: "There are major difficulties here and given the failure of the IRA to decommission, I don't think that this package of proposals is going anywhere. We made it absolutely clear that the package as presently formulated in the absence of actual decommissioning will have to be rejected as a way forward."

Mr Trimble said he would not back down on demands for IRA disarmament before accepting the peace process rescue package. "The Government has to rethink the political context in which it is operating and it has to signal clearly by putting pressure on republicans that there has to be an end to all violence," Mr Trimble told Sky News.

He made it clear that the rescue package, with its brief mention of decommissioning, could not be accepted on its own. "But the paper, if it produces decommissioning on the part of republicans and a clear acceptance of the police and support for proper policing by nationalists, could create a different situation," he said.

Mr Reid appealed to all parties to accept the proposals and warned that failing to break the impasse would only benefit "the type of people who are placing bombs in Ealing".

"We have to show politics works. It has worked in Northern Ireland. It is a much better place than it was, but there is a long, long way to go yet," he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost. He denied there were any secret talks going on with the IRA to deliver a breakthrough on decommissioning.