By Jack Holland
President Clinton last week warned British Prime Minister Tony Blair that there must be no dilution of the Patten proposals on reforming the Northern Ireland police, a reliable source has claimed.
The warning came after the prime minister had made a direct appeal to the president as part of an attempt to bolster the position of embattled Unionist leader David Trimble, who is due to go before his party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, this Saturday to decide whether the party should go into a restored power-sharing government. Trimble had said that he could not convince the UUC to back a return to government without a victory on Patten.
The Unionist leader was hoping that Clinton would agree to pressure the Irish government to accept concessions, especially on the emotive issue of changing the RUC’s name, which is one of the more than 100 sweeping reforms proposed by the Patten Commission that are due to be enacted by the British parliament this week
However, Blair’s direct intervention with Clinton failed. The president said that any dilution of the Patten proposals on reshaping the police would not be acceptable to nationalists. Sinn Fein spokesmen have made it clear that any attempt to dilute Patten would kill the Good Friday agreement. It would be an "absolute disaster," in the words of one. The SDLP and the Irish government have also insisted that the Patten reforms had to be enacted.
The telephone call to Washington was made against a growing crisis within Ulster Unionist Party ranks over how to respond to the IRA statement of May 6, which said that the organization had agreed to allow outside inspectors to visit its arms dumps and verify that weapons had not been used. The British government responded by saying that devolved government would be restored to Northern Ireland on May 22.
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On Monday, May 15, former Finnish Prime Minister Martti Ahtisaari and ex-head of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa arrived in Belfast to arrange for the visits to the arms-dump sites. They will be working in conjunction with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning headed by General John de Chastelain.
One leading Unionist, Ken Maginnis, warned that without a concession on policing, he did not think Trimble could recommend that his party accept Saturday’s IRA arms offer to pave the way for a return to power-sharing government. John Taylor, the deputy leader of the UUP, has wavered, after first endorsing IRA offer as a sound basis for a return to government.
Earlier this year, the Ulster Unionist Council passed a motion that the party should not go into government again unless Britain agreed to the retention of the RUC name. The issue of the name change, along with a quarrel over when the Union Jack can be flown over government buildings, have now replaced decommissioning as potential deal breakers.
Irish government officials are privately concerned about Trimble’s handling of the campaign to win support of fellow Unionists for a return to power-sharing. The "No" campaign has been gaining momentum, even though a BBC poll showed last week that 66 percent of Unionists thought that Trimble should go back into government with Sinn Fein on the strength of the IRA’s commitment to "put its arms beyond use."
In theory, Unionists should find it hard to reject a proposal that comes with the strong endorsement of Blair himself. But unless Trimble makes a convincing case to the doubters, he could face a setback.
"The yes campaign is drifting," said an official source. "There’s a very good possibility that Trimble will be beaten."