By Jack Holland
The Halloween deadline for the formation of the new Northern Ireland assembly’s shadow executive — hailed as an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement — does not have a ghost of a chance of being met, according to informed sources. The shadow executive also provides for the setting up of cross-border bodies, an ingredient of primary importance for Sinn Féin and the IRA’s continued support for the agreement.
For weeks David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister in the new assembly, has been demanding the beginning of decommissioning before assigning places on the shadow executive to those parties like Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party who are linked to armed groups. But both the IRA and the UVF have made it clear that no arms will be decommissioned before October 31st.
At the PUP weekend conference in Belfast, party spokesman Billy Hutchinson said: "There’s not a chance, not a hope in hell of decommissioning before October 31."
When Trimble was asked last week in New York if he expected there would be a shadow executive by October 31, he replied: "We will have one when we have one."
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Throughout the summer both the British and Irish governments were adamant that the deadline had to be kept or the whole agreement would be in danger of unravelling. However, sources close to Dublin are now saying that the Irish government is prepared to accept some "slippage" if they believe that Trimble is serious about getting the shadow executive "up and running" within a reasonable time. This is believed to mean within a week or two of the original deadline.
It is known that both the British and Irish governments are nervous about pushing Trimble too hard for fear of making his position within his own party untenable. He has already come under tremendous pressure from sections of the UUP who are unhappy with the Good Friday Agreement. Just last week, four UUP MPs set up a pressure group, calling itself Union First, within the party to push Trimble to remain "true" to Unionist principles. One of its trustees is former UUP leader James Molyneaux. The four MPs are Jeffrey Donaldson, Roy Beggs, Clifford Forsythe, and William Ross.
Both governments realize that the coming two weeks are especially sensitive for Trimble. The UUP annual conference begins the weekend of October 23, and a week later, there is a crucial meeting of the party’s ruling body, the Executive Council. Either or both occasions could see his opponents mount an attack on his position. Dublin and London accept that Trimble will not take any decisions in relation to decommissioning and the shadow executive that might make him vulnerable until those events have past.
"We can’t force his hand," said a government official. "We have to get him to change his mind without destabilizing him within the UUP."
One of the suggestions is that General De Chastelain, who is heading the International Body on Decommissioning, might make a statement saying he is confident that the process will begin within the time frame of two years that the Good Friday Agreement provided for the disposal of paramilitary hardware.
Other sources suggest that Martin McGuinness, who is the liaison between the IRA and the decommissioning body, might issue a statement saying that the IRA could begin decommissioning in tandem with the full executive when it begins to function next year. However, Mr Hutchinson who is a member of the new assembly and the official mediator between the UVF and the International Body on Decommissioning, warned that "even if the IRA decommissions it doesn’t mean the UVF will." He stressed that a timetable for decommissioning of arms was "out of the question."
A UUP spokesman accused the PUP of "riding to the rescue" of Sinn Féin.
Meanwhile, it is expected that the British government will soon recognize the cease-fire of the renegade Loyalist Volunteer Force called last July. Sources say that the LVF will then begin to decommission its weapons.
"It’ll be junk stuff — cross bows and arrows," said a source close to the talks between the group and the authorities.