Category: Archive

Angry Unionists unappeased

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Unionists have reacted with dismay to the British government’s effective rejection last week of their demands for the authorities to ensure that Sinn Fein will be held more accountable for any future IRA activities, which could lead to the party’s expulsion from the power-sharing assembly.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, expressed first his “disappointment” at the speech by the Northern Ireland secretary of state, John Reid, on Wednesday, July 24. He had not acceded to Unionist demands for “red lines” to be drawn, defining the IRA cease-fire, and sanctions to be initiated against Sinn Fein.

Trimble later adopted a harder line, however, expressing his view that Reid had behaved and spoken “appallingly” in the House of Commons when making the announcement. He was kinder to the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

The long-awaited British statement did not introduce any firmer guidelines on what constitutes a cease-fire. But it made it clear that activities such as weapons procurement and targeting would be regarded as violations of the cease-fire. Blair promised a “rigorous response” to breaches of both loyalist and republican cease-fires.

He said paramilitary organizations should be stood down while the development of weapons and targeting of individuals should also cease. He told MPs that four years after the Good Friday agreement it is “no longer sufficient that there should be no terrorist violence — we have to be clear that preparations for violence have ceased.”

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“It is right that with the passage of time these judgments should become increasingly rigorous,” he added.

Blair also said that Reid would be consulting the parties about the possibility of introducing “some independent element” into the process of assessing or auditing cease-fires.

Reid said the judgments about cease-fires have to be made “in the round,” taking account of all relevant factors. He announced that in reviewing the cease-fires, he will give “particular weight” to any “substantiated information” that a group was engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of weapons.

“Lest there be any doubt on the matter . . . I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances require it”, he said.

Turning to the involvement of paramilitaries in organized crime, Reid has asked Professor Ron Goldstock to assist in assessing the scale of the problem. Goldstock is a former head of the anti-organized-crime unit in New York State.

Speaking following Blair in the House of Commons, Reid said he was considering using an assessment of levels of paramilitary violence within both loyalist and republican communities to supplement his decisions on cease-fires and would decide on this over the summer.

He also said he had asked the British attorney general to lead an examination of police powers, bail arrangements and the scope for additional criminal offenses.

“He will also examine whether there are any changes in the criminal law that could be made to facilitate successful prosecutions for acts of terrorism, violence and organized crime,” Reid said.

But although Blair and Reid’s words sounded hard line, upon closer examination they do not propose what the Ulster Unionists had wanted: the virtual guaranteed expulsion of Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Still, putting on a brave face, Trimble later welcomed what he claimed was “a very different emphasis coming from Downing Street.

Speaking at a press conference the next day with the prime minister, he said he was glad that Blair “gave a very clear, unambiguous statement that in the event of there being a breach of the IRA cease-fire, the government would send to the Assembly a motion calling for the exclusion of Sinn Fein.”

This possible course of action, however, has been available to the British government ever since the agreement was made and has never been used.

The UUP has now postponed until September a decision on whether it will withdraw from the Executive. After a 90-minute meeting at Stormont with his Assembly team on Thursday, Trimble said he would formally consult with his party in mid-September on “progress” since the British government’s statement this week.

He then left for vacation in Cyprus and is not expected to take an active role in political life in the North until late August. He remains, however, under pressure from the hard-liners within his party who want the Agreement ditched.

Trimble may yet face a fresh challenge to his leadership in September, although those with the potential to overthrow him show no sign at present of being prepared to initiate a leadership contest.

Sinn Fein, meanwhile, was less than thrilled with Blair’s statement. A visibly angry Gerry Adams, the party’s president, noted that the prime minister had referred to the IRA four times.

“It did not mention the Ulster Defense Association, it did not mention the loyalist groups,” he said. “All of that was based on bad advice to him by a system that used to pretend there was no such thing as sectarian attacks from loyalists. By and large, the system that runs the North is still a Unionist system. The British government is not politically neutral on this issue.”

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