Category: Archive

Agreement’s future on line as Unionists prepare to vote

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — In another nail-biting week, seasoned observers say the all-out battle for votes, now under way before Saturday’s critical Ulster Unionist Council meeting to decide the future of the Good Friday agreement, is far too close to call.

The meeting had been scheduled for May 20, but UUP leader David Trimble decided late last week to postpone the meeting for a week.

About 40 percent of the Council’s 850-plus members are vehemently opposed to the agreement, and to accepting the IRA’s latest offer on decommissioning, with roughly the same amount in favor.

In the middle are the remaining 20 percent — undecided and persuadable. They included, until Tuesday, the UUP deputy leader, John Taylor, who initially backed the IRA offer but this week said he would not give his support.

The IRA has said it will open some of its arms dumps to international inspection. However, a high-ranking Sinn Fein member warned last week that the IRA offer has been put at risk because of British government concessions to unionists on policing and the flying of the union flag over government buildings in Northern Ireland.

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Both pro- and anti-agreement wings of the UUP are involved in daily e-mails, frantic phone lobbying and intensive campaigning in the newspapers, radio and television. These 200 or so UUP delegates hold the future of the peace process, and Trimble’s leadership of his party, in their hands.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the events of this week will determine whether the Good Friday agreement will "live or die."

"If it were possible for me to get the IRA to surrender, to march heads bowed without clothing to Glengall Street [UUP headquarters], pulling behind them containers of IRA weapons, which we then get these naked IRA volunteers to break with their own heads, having shot each other and then disbanded, [Jeffrey] Donaldson would look for more," he said.

A reminder of pre-IRA cease-fire days came on Friday when a number of buildings were evacuated in Belfast city center following bomb alerts. BBC radio and television went off the air and a movie theater closed down as staff were moved after the discovery of a suspect car.

A phone warning had been made to a local newspaper by a caller claiming to represent the dissident Continuity IRA. The suspect vehicle had been hijacked from north Belfast by a gang of masked men and the driver forced to drive on with an apparent bomb on board.

The previous day, Trimble postponed the UUP council meeting, which should have taken place on Saturday, saying he had not had time to sell the proposal to go back in government to his party grassroots. Instead, he had spent the week trying to extract concessions from London.

He now says he’s received the assurances he needs to recommend the IRA offer to the party Council and that rejecting it would place the party in the "political wilderness" for many years under direct rule with "a green nationalist tinge."

Trimble says, however, that the opening of "a number" (believed to be three) IRA arms dumps to inspection by two independent statesmen is only a first step. He says he will be insisting that actual decommissioning follows and he could not sustain remaining in government with republicans otherwise.

Trimble said if the Council votes in favor of returning to the Executive, it would not be irreversible. "There is concern within the party that if we move on this, then we are locked into a situation. That’s simply not the case," he said.

Those in the anti-agreement camp have already spent a long week campaigning and will be doing so right up to the last minute on Saturday morning. UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the British government should exclude Sinn Fein until the IRA has decommissioned all its weapons.

William Ross, one of five Ulster Unionist MPs who have written to the members of the UUC recommending they reject the deal, accused Trimble of deserting the "no guns, no government" policy.

The DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, said Trimble was the "arch traitor" and the "IRA’s salesman." The UUP, he said, had "dug the grave of unionism and now invite us to have a respectable burial of traditional unionism. The hole which Mr. Trimble has dug for himself and the party, he will bury himself in."

Trimble said his decision to back the return of power-sharing was made only after receiving assurances about the IRA arms offer. "There’s a mistaken idea that this question of having dumps that are sealed and inspected is what we’re talking about — no it is not," Trimble said. "The [British] government has made it absolutely clear that beyond use means decommissioning in accordance with the statute which will remain unchanged and which talks about destruction and making things permanently unusable and permanently inaccessible."

The Taoiseach has expressed hope that Trimble will get the support of his party. Bertie Ahern said this presented a "huge opportunity."

The British Northern secretary, Peter Mandelson, said it would be madness for the Ulster Unionist Council to rejected the IRA’s offer. "I think their credibility and standing before the bar of political opinion, not just here but around the world as well, has some importance to them," he said.

Mandelson described some of the e-mails, leaflets and letters sent by anti-agreement unionists to other members of the party as "disgusting lies."

The deputy leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, said it was vital that Trimble’s supporters defeated party hardliners. "What has got to be done now, in the week that is open, is that those unionists who want to share power, who want to get on with the business of life here, who want to work this new dispensation, try to persuade the in-betweeners."

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