Ulster peace `on a knifedge'

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The Independent Online
THE PEACE process was last night on a knife-edge, Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said after a day dominated by confusion and concern that talks were about to fail.

"Of course we are on a knife-edge. I am not disputing that, but we are on a knife-edge with a lot going for us too." It was right the two sides should take the time they needed to reflect seriously on the complex plan on the table but he hoped they would find it in themselves to recommend the proposals to their respective parties.

Yesterday the former US senator George Mitchell adjourned his review of the Good Friday agreement to Monday in the hope that a weekend of reflection could allow tempers to cool. It followed a day of confusion about the exact state of play within David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party, which was initially reported to have rejected proposals worked out by the Unionist leader and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, over 10 weeks of talks.

It subsequently emerged that a majority of Unionist members of the Belfast assembly had voted for the proposals. This caused republican suspicions that Unionist sources were misreporting the state of opinion, perhaps in an attempt to extract concessions from Sinn Fein.

Although a vote was taken on a package designed to lead to devolution and de-commissioning at a meeting on Thursday, it was done so by secret ballot and the result was not announced by Mr Trimble. Yesterday those who opposed the package claimed that at least seven of the 26 assembly members who were present had voted against. Although this would leave a clear majority in Mr Trimble's favour, his precarious position within the assembly means that seven defections might spell defeat for him. In any event, he needs a majority in the 800-strong ruling Ulster Unionist Council to accept the package as policy before proceeding to the assembly itself.

The package, as thrashed out between himself and Mr Adams, is not believed to provide a guarantee of the de-commissioning of IRA weaponry, as the Ulster Unionists had hoped. But it lays out a series of steps which, it is argued, would make de-commissioning politically inevitable.

While all this represents an avenue which might lead to eventual success, the confusion over the Unionist party's position overshadowed everything else yesterday.

Adjourning the talks, Mr Mitchell said: "The review has reached the final and most critical stage. I have asked the parties to pause over the weekend and reflect on the decisions they have to make."

In the meantime, most of those involved are seeking clarification of the state of play within the Unionist party. Mr Trimble's deputy, the Strangford MP John Taylor, announced yesterday that he had voted against the package.

He said he was against the deal because it offered nothing new on de- commissioning, with no guarantee by the IRA on weapons. He added: "Whatever happens must be underwritten by the IRA to our satisfaction."

A one-time supporter of the Good Friday agreement, Mr Taylor recently declared he had changed his mind. Although he holds senior office, Mr Taylor does not seem to command any effective faction within the party.

Most of the other dissenters who voted against are known opponents of the agreement, though a few had been regarded as Trimble loyalists. Observers are now waiting anxiously to see whether Mr Trimble decides to run with the package or whether he will conclude he could not sell it to the party.

A senior Unionist negotiator, Sir Reg Empey, said his party would keep trying to make the review work but admitted this could be the last chance.

He added: "We've only one more chance at this and we want to take this opportunity and do our best. If people are serious about disarmament and want to see conflict at an end, the sooner they concentrate on how they convey that message to us the better."

Mr Adams challenged Mr Trimble to show leadership: "Success in this process requires that those in political leadership fulfil their responsibilities and give leadership."