By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — No progress has been made on policing, IRA arms or demilitarization in talks between the British government and republicans, Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, said this week.
Meanwhile, Unionists are saying that unless there is substantial progress on IRA weapons decommissioning by this weekend further sanctions against Sinn Fein are likely.
Currently, Sinn Fein is barred by First Minister David Trimble from attending cross-border meetings, though the court has declared this ban illegal.
A full-scale crisis in the peace process could develop before the end of February unless headway is made on these and other issues.
Unionist sources are warning they will no longer tolerate the "contemptuous" way they have been treated by republicans over IRA decommissioning and say next Saturday’s meeting of the party’s executive will be "critical."
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Sinn Fein is accusing Trimble of positioning himself to blame republicans if progress proves impossible.
"Gerry Adams is in nearly continual contact with British and Irish officials and this will last over the weekend," said a Sinn Fein source. "But there is no sign of any significant movement back to the deal the IRA struck with the British government last May."
This Friday’s UUP officer board meeting and Saturday’s executive meeting could prove a turning point, unionists say.
"Substantive re-engagement between the IRA and the Decommissioning Body will not be enough" said one senior unionist source. "Vague assurances on modalities of decommissioning will not be either.
Although there has been a welter of media speculation over the last week over the possibility of the IRA paving over of arms dumps, or even rendering its arsenal "beyond use" through the use of chemicals, republican sources have dismissed these as "spin."
"The gap between our position and the British government’s on policing is still significant, fundamental," a Sinn Fein source said. "This issue is as big for us as the status of Jerusalem is in the Middle East peace talks."
Adams told the BBC on Saturday that the Good Friday agreement is "now on a life-support machine."
"I am saying that on these crux issues that the gap between the British government’s proposals on policing and the type of policing service which was agreed on Good Friday, that gap remains as wide as ever," Adams said.
Despite this assessment, Adams said republicans were still engaged in the process and would not give up on the discussions.
Speaking on Thursday, after meeting the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in the House of Commons, Trimble said: "It’s a bit of a disappointment. Obviously we’d dearly love to see the weapons issue resolved once and for all."
Trimble did say, however, there was still a "window of opportunity" but added that, "Realistically, one cannot keep these discussions going, this expectation hovering there without matters coming to a head."
The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, held separate talks with Blair but made no comment afterward. It’s believed the British government has gone some way toward SDLP proposals on strengthening public accountability over policing.
Republicans opposed to the agreement are considering putting up independent candidates in Sinn Fein strongholds like the West Belfast constituency now represented by Adams. At a meeting in the area, it was suggested that former hunger striker Marion Price, who now supports the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, might be a candidate.
Meanwhile, the civil service in Northern Ireland has been embarrassed by a leaked document expressing resentment at Stormont Assembly committees for interfering on issues with which it normally deals.
In a memo circulated to high-ranking colleagues, the Department of Regional Development’s permanent secretary, Ronnie Spence, listed examples of a post-devolution lack of "conventions" similar to those established in the British parliament in London.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey described the memo as "a veiled swipe at the legal and democratic basis of the committees." In his letter dated Jan. 12, 2001, Spence complained of some committees’ inclination to get involved in "detailed casework" and questioning of officials about "operational matters."