Unionists toughen stance

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TONY BLAIR and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, flew to Belfast yesterday to present decommissioning proposals which look to be unacceptable to the IRA and Sinn Fein.

The opening session, of what have been billed as last-chance talks to make a decommissioning breakthrough, saw the Prime Minister and theTaoiseach outline their latest proposals to break the deadlock before the 30 June deadline for devolution.

Mr Blair has proposed that the Ulster Unionist Party should accept Sinn Fein in a new government without prior decommissioning by the IRA. In return, he offers Unionists "cast-iron" guarantees that the IRA would complete decommissioning by May 2000. If this did not happen, then the executive could not continue.

As the two men flew from London after attending Cardinal Basil Hume's funeral, the day brought what appeared to be a significant toughening of the Ulster Unionist stance. The party leader, David Trimble, restored to his negotiating team South Antrim MP Jeffrey Donaldson. Mr Donaldson walked away from the talks on last year's Good Friday Agreement because of what he alleged was a fudge on de-commissioning. His restoration was viewed as an indication that the party's position of insisting on decommissioning prior to the formation of a new executive is unlikely to weaken.

Republicans have turned down proposals for even a token decommissioning: the idea that they might hand over their arsenal would require a U- turn of historic proportions.

The scene is set for hard-bargaining when the two prime ministers return to talks for negotiations on Monday. In the meantime the parties will spend the weekend studying the new proposals in detail.

Northern Ireland's major business organisations said a breakdown would dash the hopes of stability, economic growth and an inclusive society.

Tony Blair's official spokes-man said the Prime Minister would want to face Mr Trimble and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams so that he could "look into the whites of their eyes" to check they were committed to the fundamental principles behind the peace process.

Mr Trimble insisted the decommissioning question had to be answered by the paramilitaries.