By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — Rumors of an imminent breakthrough in the stalled peace talks were scotched by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams Tuesday. He said that progress had been "limited" and the deadlock "had not been broken." For nationalists, the main issue remains policing reform.
Both the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahearn, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said they were ready to go to Belfast to assist. However, Adams said such a visit would be "pointless" in the current circumstances.
But Adams himself is believed to have dropped plans to visit Washington, D.C., this week, leading some to think a breakthrough was near. However, a spokesman for Friends of Sinn Fein said that the trip had never been finalized.
Meanwhile, First Minister and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble is planning to increase his sanctions against Sinn Fein, despite being told those he has already imposed are unlawful, in order to step up pressure on republicans to decommission weapons.
He is believed to be planning to withdraw his ministers from the North-South Ministerial Council and to refuse to sign the required legal papers allowing Sinn Fein ministers to attend British-Irish Council meetings.
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He is also believed to be planning to ask the Stormont assembly to eject the two Sinn Fein ministers from the Executive, although this cannot succeed without SDLP support. That party is opposed to the moves Trimble has already taken.
Such a move would in effect nullify the cross-border element of the Good Friday agreement — with the second plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council scheduled for March 2.
At Saturday’s three-hour meeting of the UUP executive, Trimble did not outline his plans in detail, but merely said that "serious steps" would be taken in a phased way against Sinn Fein unless the IRA begins decommissioning.
Trimble confirmed after the meeting that he intended to "progressively terminate" the institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement.
"We intend to keep them [republicans] to their promises," he said.
According to Trimble, the UUP has endorsed his proposal to continue to pressure republicans in the coming weeks.
Speaking in Dublin, Sinn Fein’s Adams said Trimble’s letter to his two party ministers on Friday, in which he confirmed he would retain his ban on them attending North-South meetings despite it being unlawful, was "grossly offensive."
Adams has been involved in intensive meetings all week with the British prime minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. "Limited progress" on policing has been made at these meetings, some of which have continued until the early hours of the morning, according to a Sinn Fein source.
Anti-agreement members of the UUP executive left Saturday’s meeting frustrated that Trimble had refused to outline his exact plans.
Hardline anti-agreement MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "It is clear these sanctions will be applied within a time scale leading to the exclusion from office of Sinn Fein ministers in the event of the IRA failing to decommission."
Adams, who briefed his party’s ard comhairle in Dublin on the current political talks, accused Trimble of undermining the process.
Speaking to journalists afterward, Adams said that while the weekend focus had been on Trimble and the UUP executive, the British prime minister still had a major responsibility.
Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP, warned Trimble he would not collude in the strategy against Sinn Fein. Speaking on BBC Radio, he said the UUP leader’s approach was damaging the political negotiations.