By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Storm clouds are gathering over the peace process in Ireland as the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern prepare to fly to Hillsborough Castle for crisis talks with the pro-Good Friday agreement parties this week.
Unionists are demanding sanctions against Sinn Fein over alleged continuing IRA activity, both in Ireland and abroad, with the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, is saying it will be Blair’s “last chance” to act decisively.
Trimble warned the British government is risking losing “public support” in the Unionist community unless action is taken to end violence on the streets. “I think this might actually be Tony Blair’s last chance to get a grip on the situation,” he said.
“I do have to emphasize that the situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated very sharply over the course of the last month or two. Rioting is now almost a nightly event.”
Trimble, who is also Northern Ireland’s first minister, said it was clear the trouble was orchestrated by paramilitaries but “primarily by the republican movement.”
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“We’ve had a serious increase of violence and no effective action so far by the government in response to this,” he said. “The inevitable consequence of that is that support for the present arrangements is rapidly vanishing.”
On Friday, Trimble denied claims printed in a Belfast newspaper, the Newsletter, which is read mostly by Unionists, that he was going to walk out of this week’s crisis talks once he’d put his party position on the table.
The newspaper, however, is standing by its report, saying it was sourced by four different Unionists despite Trimble’s strenuous denial of its claim that he is planning to snub the British and Irish governments.
Trimble said he has made no such decision and that such conduct “would run counter to the approach” he has taken since he had become leader of the UUP.
Unionists are expected to use Thursday’s talks to push for punishment for Sinn Fein, specifically exclusion from the power-sharing executive, although few privately believe this is actually going to happen.
Thursday’s crisis talks were called two weeks ago amid diminishing Unionist confidence in the peace process. It followed claims, quoting unnamed security sources, that the IRA had been developing and testing new weapons in Colombia.
Republicans have also been implicated by the Northern Ireland police in the break-in at a Special Branch office at the Castlereagh police complex in Belfast, although their British counterparts believe it was an “inside job,” carried out by some undercover state agency.
This week there were further revelations, again from unnamed security sources leaking to the BBC, of an alleged IRA “hit list.” A spokesman confirmed that police have been warning judges, politicians and loyalists that their details have been found on IRA intelligence files.
The information was apparently found on a computer seized by the police in searches of republican areas after the break-in at Castlereagh. One man, a republican ex-prisoner, faces charges.
Several weeks ago, detectives discovered a list of senior Conservative politicians on the same computer, although it later transpired that many of the names were out of date and had been gleaned from a published political diary.
The BBC reported that, as the police “minute examination of the computer’s memory disk went deeper, experts found a list of more than 200 names covering the security forces, the judiciary, forensic scientists, politicians and loyalists.”
“Security sources,” said the BBC, “have described the latest find as highly significant. The information was collected over a long period of time. Much of it is old but some material has been updated — the retirement date of a senior detectives was logged.”
On Thursday, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said the IRA remains on cease-fire and is committed to the peace process. Adams attacked what he called “repackaged stories” from the media and said he found them “bewildering.”
“It is my firm view that the IRA remains disciplined, remains on cessation and remains committed to the peace process,” he said. “This is at a time when all of the loyalist organizations are off their cessations.”
Adams also went further this week than he had before on the future of the IRA, saying he wanted to see physical force republicanism ended. “I am totally committed,” he said, “to playing a leadership role in bringing a permanent end to political conflict on our island, including the end of physical force republicanism.
“I want to assure Unionists that the republican promotion of the equality and justice and human rights agenda is about securing the entitlements of every citizen and of building a strong and open democracy in which we can all promote and articulate our differing goals peacefully and democratically.”