Ulster Unionists set to join talks

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The Independent Online
David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party yesterday cleared the way for participation in tomorrow's long-awaited talks about Northern Ireland's future, despite last week's IRA statement questioning the Mitchell principles of non-violence.

The party's 110-person executive authorised its leadership to take whatever steps it felt appropriate to represent the Unionist case in the talks, which will for the first time involve Sinn Fein. A further meeting is to be held in Belfast tomorrow, but the executive's attitude effectively frees Mr Trimble to take part. Party sources doubted, however, that its leaders would take part in face-to-face negotiations across the table from Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders. They also doubted that the talks process would get smoothly under way, predicting that a week or more could be taken up with procedural wrangling involving Mr Trimble and, possibly, other Unionist parties.

According to one report, the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party intends to file a formal complaint against Sinn Fein and demand their expulsion from the talks process. Such a procedure, if instituted, might well cause a hold-up.

Yesterday Paul Murphy, Northern Ireland political development minister, welcomed the Unionist decision, saying: "The point is that the Ulster Unionists have not refused to engage, in fact, all the signs are in the opposite direction. We think signs are positive."

The UUP executive appears to have reflected the consensus among the Protestant population, which favours entering the talks. Last week an opinion poll concluded that 93 per cent of UUP supporters wanted entry into the talks, though a separate poll concluded those wanting actual face-to-face negotiations with Sinn Fein was just over half.

The Party executive appears to have been impressed by an article by Tony Blair, carried in yesterday's edition of the Belfast News Letter, one of Ulster's morning papers, in which the Prime Minister reiterated that his government was committed to the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. He declared: "I value the Union and Northern Ireland's place within it."

Mr Blair also issued a stern warning to republicans that any return to violence would result in their expulsion from the talks.

He was scathing of the IRA's announcement that it had "problems" with the Mitchell principles and warned that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams would have "a lot of questions to answer" when the talks get under way.

"I will not stand for any attempt to use violence, or the threat of violence, to influence the talks or the outcome of the negotiations," he said.

"No one should be naive about the IRA and Sinn Fein. The two organisations are inextricably linked. One cannot credibly claim to be acting independently of the other. But whatever problems some members of the IRA may have about the Mitchell principles, a firm commitment to non-violence and democracy is the only basis for negotiations. If they are dishonoured, for example by a return to violence by the IRA ... let there be no doubt Sinn Fein will not be able to stay in the talks."