By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The British and Irish governments are involved in intense negotiations this week to resolve a growing and seemingly intractable crisis in the peace process over IRA weapons decommissioning.
The Ulster Unionists say they won’t sit in a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein until the IRA has actually begun handing in weapons to the International Body on Decommissioning.
Sinn Fein denies such a precondition to the Executive’s formation exists in the Good Friday Agreement and has accused the unionists of bad faith in trying to renegotiate.
Republican sources say the IRA will not decommission. "It’s not on the cards at all," said one source. The DUP leader, David Trimble, says the other parties will carry on without Sinn Fein if necessary.
He is also demanding that the first North/South Ministerial Council meet before the setting up of the Executive. This would mean that no Sinn Fein representative would be present when the vital first program of work is discussed.
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The UUP will be there, in the form of Trimble himself, and the SDLP also, with deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon present. The DUP is refusing to participate, leaving just Sinn Fein excluded from its deliberations.
Trimble is also claiming the Executive need not be formed until next February, when the handover of power from Westminster is due to begin, and he is referring to a letter he got from the British prime minister, Tony Blair.
In this letter, sent to Trimble in the last days of the Stormont negotiations, which led up to the good Friday Agreement, Blair gives a commitment to looking again at proposals on decommissioning, if no actual disarming has begun six months after the referendum that approved the deal.
There’s concern in nationalist quarters that Blair has not yet made a comprehensive statement on Trimble’s demands, with fears he may side with the UUP leader rather than the strict text of the Agreement.
Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam said this week that although decommissioning was an essential, all parts of the Good Friday Agreement must move together in parallel. She notably did not insist, as Trimble is stipulating, that some IRA decommissioning must begin before the new Executive is set up. She also said progress was being made on the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the Civic Forum.
Sinn Fein is insisting that the Executive must be formed immediately with two places set aside for the party according to its electoral mandate. Gerry Adams said his party had moved significantly, holding a special ard fheis and changing its constitution to allow it to take part in the Northern Assembly.
He said he would not have supported such a radical change in party policy and could not have gained approval from the ard fheis had prior IRA decommissioning been a pre-condition for Sinn Fein’s role on the Executive.
He said the structures and institutions foreseen in the Agreement were interlocking and the unionists could not set up those they wanted — such as the Assembly — while ignoring those they did not want, such as the Executive.
Dissident unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said Trimble should resign if he takes his seat alongside Sinn Fein without IRA decommissioning. He held out the real possibility of a split within the Ulster Unionist Party.
Adams said last week there can be no further delay in setting up the Executive and all-Ireland Ministerial Council. "This principle cannot be dodged, bent or evaded," he said.
Sinn Fein also said that expectations of IRA decommissioning were unrealizable. A party spokesman, Gerry Kelly, accused the unionists of creating a crisis in the peace process by concentrating on decommissioning to exclusion of all else.
Meanwhile, the first life sentence prisoners to be freed as a result of the Good Friday Agreement were released from the Maze jail last week, four loyalists and one republican. Three of the loyalists were former British soldiers. They were Geoffrey Edwards, a UVF man who was also a member of the Ulster Defense Regiment and convicted of murdering a Sinn Fein election worker in 1982, and Robert Kenny, a private in the UDR, and Mark Trotter, a member of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who together killed a Catholic man in Enniskillen at Easter 1985. The fourth loyalist, UVF man Thomas Mair, had served more than 14 years for the murder of a Catholic father of four in 1984.
The republican released was Damien Nicell of Derry, who’d been the look-out man during the IRA’s murder of RUC man Clive Graham, shot dead at a checkpoint in March 1988.