Unionists reject army bases offer

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ATTEMPTS TO break the deadlock over arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland, by offering to close army bases in return for a weapons handover by the IRA, were rejected by the Ulster Unionists yesterday.

British government sources had indicated over the weekend that the impasse could be bridged by reducing the number of "legally held" guns in the province.

However, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said that he firmly rejected the idea that the police or Army should give up weapons as part of the "collective act of reconciliation" suggested in the Hillsborough Declaration, agreed by the UK and Irish governments on 1 April. "There is absolutely no equivalent between arms held by the Army and police and those held by illegal organisations," he said.

Mr Trimble did, however, indicate he recognised that recent IRA statements on decommissioning had moved significantly on the issue, by not repeating previous pledges "never" to hand over any arms.

Crucially, the First Minister said he was more concerned at reports that loyalist paramilitaries are refusing to decommission. "I have to question their motives," he said.

But Mr Trimble repeated yesterday that his party will not share power with Sinn Fein unless the IRA made a "credible start" to decommissioning first.

He said he was looking forward to trying to make progress, but the UUP wanted clarification on the exact meaning of the Hillsborough Declaration before endorsing or rejecting it.

Four members of the 28-strong UUP Assembly team - Bill Armstrong, Pauline Armitage, Roy Beggs Jnr, and Derek Hussey - have already publicly expressed their concerns over the Declaration.

With the Assembly currently balanced at 29-29 between those in favour and against, Mr Trimble cannot afford to lose their support.