By Anne Cadwallader and Andrew Bushe
BELFAST — Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has survived a crucial Stormont vote that followed in the wash of a storm arising from comments made by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to a British Sunday newspaper.
Assembly members at Stormont voted 72-29 Tuesday in favor of the formation of previously agreed cross-border bodies and a 10-minister Executive.
As the vote took place, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was in London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Back in Belfast there was little cause for celebration following the vote as Trimble stated that he would resign as First Minister Designate rather than sit down in the Executive with Sinn Féin prior to the start of IRA arms decommissioning.
The Stormont vote, upon the result of which Trimble’s leadership was effectively riding, followed the uproar sparked by Bertie Ahern’s interview during which he made comments that seemed to suggest that IRA decommissioning was indeed a precondition for Sinn Féin’s place on the proposed Executive
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Trying to dampen a growing furor, Irish government officials were quick to instigate damage control. And Ahern himself disassociated himself from part of the interview during a Dáil debate Tuesday.
But republicans on both sides of the border were clearly stunned by Ahern’s apparent radical change of direction.
The taoiseach’s comments to the Sunday Times came only a couple of days before Tuesday’s Stormont vote.
Despite the taoiseach later clarification, a full reading of the interview he gave to the newspaper appears to show his strong view that at least some decommissioning is a prerequisite for the initial functioning of the Executive.
At first it was thought that Ahern had blundered into a major mistake in his handling of the peace process. Later, some critics changed their minds and said the apparent debacle had been intentional, and that the taoiseach had successfully conveyed his true views, while simultaneously assuring Sinn Féin publicly that he had not.
Part of what the taoiseach says in the interview, which was published in the paper’s internet edition, reads: "Our view is that decommissioning in one form or another has to happen. I am on record in recent weeks and months as saying that it is not compatible with being part of a government — I mean part of an Executive — that there is not at least a commencement of decommissioning.
"The big challenge is decommissioning versus the Executive. It is my view, and the view of all those who are working with me, that we are not going to get David Trimble to agree to the establishment of an Executive . . . until we actually deal with the decommissioning issue in some form, even if that is in some fairly minor way."
The taoiseach described arguments that disarming did not have to happen until May 2000 as "illogical, unfair and unreasonable." He told the newspaper that other measures that benefited Sinn Féin, such as the release of prisoners and the removal of British troops, had no start date either, but had already begun.
The Times headline stated that it was Ahern’s view that Sinn Fein should be "barred" from the Executive if the IRA does not start to decommission. Ahern’s comments quickly sent seismic shocks through republican circles.
Sinn Féin Chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said his party would be seeking urgent clarification from Dublin.
The phone lines hummed and by Sunday lunchtime, an Irish government spokesman was working hard at what was rapidly becoming an exercise in damage limitation.
"The taoiseach does not believe Sinn Fein should be barred from the Executive if the IRA doesn’t decommission. He made clear his belief that all parties, including Sinn Féin, have to clear their minds on how they’ll proceed to implement this responsibility under the Good Friday Agreement," the spokesman said.
By mid-afternoon, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, had issued a statement saying he had been in direct contact with the taoiseach who had assured him that the reported comments were inaccurate and did not reflect the position of the Irish government.
"Mr. Ahern made it clear that he had not said, as was reported, that Sinn Féin should be barred from the Executive and he also told me that in the interview . . . he had made it clear there are no preconditions in the Agreement," McGuinness said.
Other Sinn Féin members, however, remained deeply concerned over the taoiseach’s intervention, so close to the Assembly debate and vote. Unionists, meanwhile, appeared elated at the comments.
The Assembly debate, a stormy and bitter affair, paved the way toward approving the pre-Christmas deal on the all-Ireland Council and implementation bodies and the size and scope of the Executive.
In the vote itself there was 100 percent nationalist support and 50 percent unionist. This was 72.64 percent of the total Assembly. Sixty percent was required for the proposal to pass.
The vote was enough to secure Trimble’s position and his margin of comfort was aided by the fact that only one, not two, as widely expected, UUP members defected to the "No" vote.
UUP Assembly member Peter Weir was the sole defector from Trimble’s party. Roy Beggs, who was also expected to cross the floor, stayed with the UUP but said afterward that he had been given concrete assurances that Sinn Féin would not gain entry to the Executive before the start of IRA decommissioning.
With the Assembly having voted to approve the package, the way is now open for North Secretary Mo Mowlam to trigger the so-called "d’Hondt" system of dividing out the number of ministries to the main parties, dependent on electoral support.
Mowlam has indicated, however, that she will conduct full consultations with the parties before she moves to set up the Executive, and — with Trimble and the UUP still set against any inclusion of Sinn Féin — it’s likely to be held up indefinitely in the continuing row over decommissioning.
Trimble may call for a full review of the good Friday Agreement in order to try to renegotiate those parts of it his party finds objectionable. Alternatively, he may call for Sinn Féin’s exclusion from proceedings.
This would mean Sinn Féin would be kept out of the Executive, while the other parties proceed with forming a new government while dealing with devolved power from London. However, this can only go ahead with the SDLP’s support.
The DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, meanwhile, welcomed what he called Ahern’s late conversion to insisting on disarming before the setting up of the Executive, but he also warned that the Republic had violated every agreement it had made with Britain and was probably up to its usual "skullduggery and deceit."
Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon said there was still time to resolve the decommissioning impasse if there was the political will and that the problem has more to do with party politics than peace. Both sides have adopted absolutist positions which has made the problem appear intractable, he said.
Against the is backdrop the UUP has produced a document comparing the north peace process with others around the world. UUP security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, claims that where disarmament has not taken place, chaos and crime waves occur. Sinn Féin accused Maginnis of trying to divert attention from the absolute necessity of implementing the Agreement by trying to create excuses.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael leader John Bruton claimed that Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams informed him two weeks ago that the IRA had told him it would never decommission.
"He said to me that the IRA have said that they will not decommission and I [Gerry Adams] believe them. In other words, he stated his belief that they will never decommission. Now, to my mind, that creates a huge problem for Sinn Féin," Bruton told RTE.
"Sinn Fein signed up to an agreement that includes decommissioning, the total decommissioning of all arms by May 2000. Yet the leader of Sinn Fein who signed up to that, said to me that he believes they will never decommission, not by May 200O, not by May 2010."
Bruton also called on Ahern to personally clarify his position as what he said in the Sunday Times was the direct opposite of what a government spokesman was saying.
This Ahern did in the Dáil session on Tuesday afternoon. He said he had never sued the word "barred" in the Sunday Times interview.
"It is clear now that nobody was talking about barring or otherwise preventing the Northern Ireland Executive from being set up….The position is that decommissioning is an indispensable part of the Agreement. Nobody argues that. Like all parts of the Agreement it must be implemented in full and nobody disagrees with that.
"The Agreement does not contain a precondition that there must be a start to decommissioning before Sinn Féin can take its place on the Executive," Ahern said.
But he went on the add that the "political reality" was that the UUP interpreted the Agreement in a different way.
"The issue is one of timing and interpretation, how we get from the present to a point where all the guns have been removed. This has to happen as we proceed along the route.
Ahern stated that "it is neither reasonable nor politically realistic to argue that the Executive and the north-South Council be established without an understanding of how the implementation of the decommissioning part of the Agreement will be moved forward."
As the debate over the thorny arms issue continues, a recent opinion poll in the Northern newspaper the Belfast Telegraph claimed 84 percent of people want decommissioning now: 68 percent of Catholics and 93 percent of Protestants. Only 2 percent said decommissioning should never take place.
The validity of the poll was thrown into question, however, because it also showed that 58 percent of Sinn Féin supporters want decommissioning now — a figure that raised a few eyebrows.