Ulster gloom as parties restart talks

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND'S political parties reassemble at Stormont today for yet another attempt to break the arms de-commissioning impasse and pave the way for the formation of a new devolved government in Belfast.

The political atmosphere was less than encouraging yesterday, containing large amounts of uncertainty and the familiar pessimism so often felt about the prospects of progress in Northern Ireland.

None the less, the British and Irish governments and many local political elements still hope for a breakthrough, though few believe it will come about without days and probably nights of intense negotiation.

The crucial question is whether Sinn Fein and the IRA continue to set their faces against decommissioning. The draft declaration published by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister of the Republic, after the last session of talks said there must be "some arms put beyond use". This was set in the context of a "collective act of reconciliation". Sinn Fein has rejected the declaration, with republicans issuing several reiterations that decommissioning is not on offer.

However, the various statements stopped short of slamming the door on further discussions, and did not rule out discussion of the declaration's central concepts.

One of the first subjects for the new talks will be whether the republicans regard putting some arms beyond use as identical to decommissioning. If they do, then the peace process will enter one of its greatest crises; if they do not then the belief will quickly grow that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The talks will in the first instance be handled by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, and the Irish Foreign Minister, David Andrews. Mr Blair and Mr Ahern appear to be on standby to go to Belfast, possibly on Thursday, though they may stay away in the event of a total impasse.

Failure to reach agreement could mean the talks might drag on into next week. Complicating factors will then come into play, including the marching season and the European election campaign.

Success would mean a new administration should be in existence before the summer, the two governments hoping it would have a stabilising effect and, in the longer term, provide a new model for republican and Unionist co-existence.

In the event of failure almost all the blame is likely to be laid at the door of Sinn Fein, given that both the Irish government and the SDLP subscribe to the idea of arms being put beyond use. It is thus likely that the republicans are about to experience huge pressure to come into line with the declaration.

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said yesterday: "I have listened to a lot of the words that have come from republicans over the last week. I noticed that they don't repeat what IRA statements had contained up until a fortnight ago - in other words, an adamant refusal to decommission in any circumstances whatsoever. So I think we need to wait and see what their position actually is once you remove the verbiage."

n Army bomb experts found firing packs yesterday for advanced ground- to-air missiles feared to be in the possession of the IRA. Two used battery packs for the powerful SAM 7 missile were discovered in isolated countryside near Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, police said.