Unionists query new peace plan

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The Independent Online
The new Blair-Dublin initiative on decommissioning paramilitary arms in Northern Ireland drew an uncertain response from the Ulster Unionist party yesterday, raising doubts about its prospect of success.

UUP leader David Trimble's initial remarks following his meeting with Tony Blair were regarded as unexpectedly conciliatory, being welcomed by Downing Street sources as helpful. This led some to surmise that a breakthrough might be on the cards on an issue which has been possibly the largest obstacle to progress for two years.

By late afternoon, however, a harder line was evident from the UUP, with Jeffrey Donaldson MP, one of Mr Trimble's closest confidants, indicating that his party had not ruled out a flat rejection of the proposals.

Mr Trimble himself, in a BBC radio interview at 5pm, had taken up what some observers saw as a significantly tougher position. He said: "Our view is that there has to be substantial decommissioning of weapons immediately after entry into talks, that is before entry into substantive negotiations."

This insistence on decommissioning before negotiations is precisely the stance which the British and Irish governments are intent on consigning to history. On this, Mr Blair has apparently moved towards the Irish position that it is unrealistic to expect either republicans or loyalists to hand over weapons at any early stage of negotiations.

The uncertainty surrounding the UUP position means that the republican camp largely escaped the glare of publicity yesterday, but Mr Blair's statement can be expected to put the focus of attention back on Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The Government will today publish a 12-page aide memoire which it secretly sent to the IRA and Sinn Fein setting out the extent of the contacts which have gone on between government officials and Sinn Fein. It will show that there were two key meetings and a third meeting was planned but was aborted by the Northern Ireland Office after the killings by the IRA of two policemen in Lurgan.

A Downing Street source said the two documents would provide conclusive evidence for international opinion that the IRA could not claim they were being prevented from joining the peace talks by the intransigence of the British Government. "Whether they want to be in this or not, the Prime Minister is determined to try to find a way to move things forward. He feels the atmospherics in relation to the Irish government, the American government and the other parties are good," said the source.

Mr Blair will launch a last bid for peace in the Commons with a warning to the IRA and Sinn Fein that all-party talks will begin without them in September, unless they declare a ceasefire.

The Prime Minister will leave the door open for Sinn Fein to join the talks at a later stage, but his statement to the Commons is intended to intensify international pressure on the IRA to call a ceasefire to qualify for a seat at the conference table after the July marching season.

Mr Blair will publish details of the agreement between the London and Dublin governments for "parallel" decommissioning of weapons during the talks, without a deadline or timetable, to be overseen by an international commission, with a committee acting as a go-between.

Mr Blair counts the support of the US President, Bill Clinton, which he secured at the G7 talks in Denver, to be a crucial factor in the international pressure which could bring about a ceasefire.

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