Unionists shift over IRA arms

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The Independent Online
THE deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist party, John Taylor, has proposed a way of breaking the deadlock on arms decommissioning which threatens to halt the peace process, writes Stephen Castle.

Speaking in his Strangford constituency, Mr Taylor said the arguments over when paramilitary weapons should be handed over - in which his party has taken a very hard line - had "distracted" attention from more fundamental concerns.

Unionists, he said, would be prepared to enter an elected assembly alongside Sinn Fein on the condition that Sinn Fein make clear that "the cease-fire, such as it is, will hold in all circumstances".

Mr Taylor's speech suggests that the Unionists are shifting ground from the issue of weapons to the principle of "consent" - requiring an acceptance from Sinn Fein that the people of Northern Ireland should decide their future, represented in the elected assembly.

Although he had harsh words for Sinn Fein and the IRA, Mr Taylor stressed that the "Ulster Unionist Party must not be seen to act as an obstacle to peace".

Although republicans have difficulties with the idea that all-party talks should wait for an elected assembly to be in place, such language from a man regarded as a hardliner is likely to raise hopes for peace just as the International Body on Decommissioning prepares to deliver its reports this week.

Until now the Unionists have identified the destruction of IRA weapons and explosives as a firm precondition to progress in the peace process. At their behest the British Government has insisted that decommissioning must take place before all-party talks.

Pressing for the elected body, a time-limited chamber which would help negotiate a settlement, Mr Taylor said: "There is nothing to stop Sinn Fein accepting the principle of consent while standing in elections on a platform of an independent, socialist United Ireland. In return they will have an input commensurate with their level of support in free, democratic elections."