Unionists 'scratching about' for fudge on arms

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The Independent Online

Ulster Unionist leaders are "scratching about" for a way to fudge the demand for IRA weapons in return for a resumption of power sharing with Sinn Fein, an anti-Good Friday Agreement unionist claimed today.

UK Unionist leader Robert McCartney told party activists that David Trimble was trying to shift his party's demand for IRA arms to one which would seek a guarantee from republicans that they would disarm.

Mr Trimble hinted yesterday, before St Patrick's Day talks with US President Bill Clinton in Washington, that he was "prepared to be involved in a fresh sequence which would probably not involve arms upfront".

However, Mr McCartney warned that any approach to reactivate the power sharing executive at Stormont based on a form of words would fail because it was unlikely the IRA would disarm in a way that would be acceptable to unionists.

"Any form of words offered by Sinn Fein/IRA will be used to shift the blame back on to unionists if they fail to agree," the UK Unionist MP told a party meeting in Templepatrick, County Antrim.

"One only has to remember the nonsensical hype which the Irish government gave to (the international disarmament commission chief) de Chastelain's second report which was based on nothing more than the IRA reiterating its unchanged demands. Sinn Fein/IRA have given nothing and have conceded nothing."

The North Down MP said the main thrust of republican policy towards the peace process was that the British government would always concede to their demands as long as the threat of violence remained.

Unionists, he said, were beginning to see through the Good Friday Agreement and it was this which forced the suspension of the Northern Ireland Executive on February 11.

Mr McCartney was speaking amid growing disquiet in Ulster Unionist circles over Mr Trimble's comments.

Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who is a member of a working group in the party reviewing the peace process, claimed Mr Trimble's remarks could "deal a very damaging blow to the unity of our party".

The Lagan Valley MP said he was "absolutely gutted" that he had not been consulted about any shift in party policy.

"If these reports are accurate, then this would represent a substantial change in our party's policy.

"I would be totally opposed to such a change and I think many members of the party will feel as I do. I have been working for the last number of weeks, trying to rebuild unity within out party.

"If our leader is going to change our policy and tell the world without consulting his colleagues, then how on earth are you supposed to maintain unity?"

Democratic Unionist Party Deputy Leader Peter Robinson said Mr Trimble was outperforming himself as the "arch sucker" in the talks process.

"David Trimble is earning the name in Northern Ireland and abroad as someone who is a putty man, who can be easily shaped by presidents, prime ministers and Provos," the East Belfast MP said.

Sinn Fein gave a more cautious response to Mr Trimble's remarks, with Gerry Adams saying Washington he was wary that "a lot of this is about spinning and putting hard-line positions in a more positive light."

However, Sinn Fein National Chairman, Mitchell McLaughlin said if Mr Trimble were to repeat his comments on his return from the United States, it was possible "that we can do business".

"We are entitled to be sceptical. We have to see the colour of his money," the Foyle Assemblyman said.

"If David Trimble is saying one thing in the United States and when he comes back to deal with his party colleagues he is saying a different thing, then really we are no further forward."

Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis today backed Mr Trimble's signal that the UUP could go into government again with Sinn Fein ahead of IRA decommissioning.

However, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP added that republicans would need to spell out clearly that they would decommission before the power sharing executive at Stormont could be reactivated.

"It is important that David Trimble spells out again that there is the opportunity, that there is the accommodation and gives them yet another opportunity to grapple with it," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

"If we don't do that, then we're basically saying go back to your guns, go back to your bombs."

However, DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley accused Mr Trimble of "doing another somersault" on the guns and government issue.

"The tragedy is that these somersaults do not effect him but they apply to the future of this country and the very life of democracy itself," the North Antrim MP remarked.