Unionists round on Mowlam

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A SIGNIFICANT toughening of his party line by the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has increased already widespread pessimism in Belfast that a peace process breakthrough can be achieved by the 30 June deadline.

With Tony Blair due in Belfast tomorrow for crucial talks involving Mr Trimble and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, moves made by the Unionist leader, including an unprecedented call for the removal of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, were seen as removing almost all room for manoeuvre.

Tensions underlying the peace process were further aggravated yesterday by the release from the Maze prison of the Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee. The release prompted allegations by Conservatives and Unionists that republicans were benefiting from the Good Friday Agreement while offering little in return.

Mr Trimble told journalists in London: "One of the great difficulties we have had in implementing the agreement ... has been the widespread lack of confidence in the community, particularly among Ulster Unionists, with regard to what the Secretary of State will do." He said Ms Mowlam should be replaced by someone with the power to act, and with the Prime Minister's support, even hinting that the job should go to Peter Mandelson, the former trade and industry secretary. Asked whether there was a breakdown in confidence with Ms Mowlam, he said: "I would quibble with the word breakdown because there was nothing to break down."

Ms Mowlam is expected to be moved in the July reshuffle by Mr Blair from the Northern Ireland Office, where she has been since 1997.

At the same time, it also emerged that Mr Trimble has invited the dissident Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson to rejoin his negotiating team. Mr Donaldson walked out of negotiations on last year's Good Friday Agreement complaining that the party had "gone soft" on arms decommissioning. His recall now would signal a hardening of the party line on this contentious issue.

Last week Mr Trimble approved a party motion reiterating that Unionists would not sit in a new executive without the beginning of decommissioning. Given the near-universal belief that the IRA is not about to decommission in the foreseeable future, the two sides seem cemented into irreconcilable positions.

The Unionist moves follow a period of instability and division within the party, with prominent figures openly attacking each other. Mr Trimble's actions appear, at least, partly designed to unify the fractured party.

Mr Trimble also warned the Prime Minister that his reputation would be "dragged down" in Northern Ireland if he caved in to Sinn Fein and the IRA's demands to set up a new power-sharing executive before decommissioning begins.

As the last-minute political talks are about to open, security forces are preparing for widespread street disorder following on from next month's Drumcree Orange march. Around 1,300 extra troops are being drafted into Northern Ireland, with more on stand-by in Britain.

Mr Blair said last night on Ulster television that he had no "Plan B" in his pocket for use if the talks failed. He added: "If this Agreement goes down, we will just have to pick up the pieces in the best way we can. We have gone on talking, talking and talking. But at some point, people have got to make up their minds."

Mr Blair last night brushed aside the attack on Ms Mowlam, who is widely regarded as having done a good job in the most difficult circumstances. "Secretaries of state for Northern Ireland get used to being attacked by virtually everyone," he said.

Magee walked free after 14 years behind bars for planting the bomb which killed five people in Brighton's Grand Hotel during the 1984 Conservative Party conference.