Unionists reject Trimble plan to break deadlock

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The Independent Online
HOPES OF an early breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process were dashed when the Ulster Unionists rejected proposals thrashed out by their leader, David Trimble, in talks with Sinn Fein.

They were turned down by a narrow majority, believed to be 14-13, in a meeting of the 27 Ulster Unionist assembly members after a day of intensive talking at Stormont.

There was much initial dejection at the apparent collapse of the third initiative aimed at breaking the deadlock on arms decommissioning and devolution.

Although it had been expected Mr Trimble might have difficulty selling the proposals to his party executive and Ulster Unionist Council, the assembly party is regarded as the most moderate and flexible part of the party. The rejection thus suggests he is not a leader in full control and may have been damaged by yesterday's failure. Attention will now centre on how to salvage something from the wreckage and on how to rescue the process.

The deal on offer to the assembly party included a republican offer that fell well short of its goal of a guarantee that the IRA will decommission its weapons. Instead of the "arms up front" move Unionist representatives have repeatedly insisted on before a new coalition government is formed, Mr Trimble instead brought them a complex "sequencing process". Its key features were conciliatory statements from the IRA and Sinn Fein, with the appointment by the IRA of a person to liaise with the De-commissioning Commission, and various other provisions.

While many of those involved in the peace process insist that these developments represent significant and highly promising concessions from the republicans, the majority of Unionist assembly members did not agree. Since the party has been specific in demanding that "actual product" is needed, it was known it would face anger from many in its own ranks if it had settled for less.

Mr Trimble spent yesterday in shuttle diplomacy, having meetings with the former US senator George Mitchell, who had brokered his talks with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was also involved in contacts.

After meeting assembly members in various small groups, Mr Trimble called a meeting of the assembly party in late afternoon. Earlier, a close aide, assembly member Michael McGimpsey, had appealed for patience. He said: "We have said repeatedly that we would like this review to come to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible but that may not be possible today. Important matters still need to be clarified and settled. We ask people to be patient. But it's crucial that we have something that actually works."

Indications were that this represented an attempt to play for time after an unenthusiastic reception for the package from many of the Unionist assembly members. Although full details of what was on the table were not released, the near- universal view was that accepting it would have entailed a lowering of Unionist sights.

The argument in favour of the deal was that while it does not guarantee decommissioning, it did lay out a sequence of moves by Unionists and republicans. If republicans did not honour these understandings, they would be condemned from all sides, taking full blame for any lack of progress.