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Courting trouble

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — As he left for a visit to the U.S. this week, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams warned the British prime minister that his party was ready to challenge the Northern secretary, Peter Mandelson, and the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, in the courts.

Sinn Fein’s legal advice is that it could successfully sue Peter Mandelson and Trimble after Bairbre de Brun, the party’s minister for health in the power-sharing Executive, was unable to attend a North-South ministerial meeting in her full capacity last Friday.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s ruling executive voted on Oct. 28 to back Trimble in unilaterally barring Sinn Fein from attending meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, although Sinn Fein is entitled to attend under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

The UUP leader said he would only lift the ban after the IRA re-engages with the weapons Decommissioning Commission, but Sinn Fein says it is not in Trimble’s power to bar its ministers from their full entitlements and powers.

Republican sources say there is no prospect of the IRA moving on decommissioning while the Trimble ban is in effect.

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De Brun attended the meeting anyway, but it was downgraded to a bilateral ministerial meeting and important decisions had to be postponed because Trimble had refused to sign the legal documents required for the full meeting to take place.

On Monday, Adams met Trimble to voice his concerns over the bar on Sinn Fein ministers. He is believed to have warned the UUP leader of the likelihood of a lawsuit if the sanctions are not lifted.

After his meeting with Trimble, the Sinn Fein leader spoke with Prime Minister Tony Blair and urged him to act to save the political institutions.

"The British government has the crucial role," Adams said later. "Mr. Trimble has painted himself into a corner because the British government gave him the space to do so.

"It is the responsibility of Sinn Féin, the Irish government and all others committed to the peace process to persuade Mr. Blair that the political process is not sustainable under current circumstances."

Mandelson has already called on Trimble to lift the ban on Sinn Féin ministers, but he has failed to use the powers Sinn Fein says he has in the recently passed Government of Northern Ireland Act to overrule Trimble.

Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon of the SDLP also challenged Trimble over the sanctions and went on to join de Brun at a meeting with her Irish government counterpart on Friday. He also attacked Trimble for "vetoing" a special meeting of the Stormont Executive to consider the ban.

At the meeting, which took place in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, de Brun and her counterpart from the Republic, Fianna Fail Minister for Health Micheal Martin, from Cork, launched a cross-border campaign to persuade women intending to become pregnant to take folic acid as part of their diet, to prevent spina bifida.

They also launched the Food Safety Promotion Board, which will become involved in working toward greater food health and safety standards on both sides of the border. This launch, however, was only limited as budgets and staffing could not be agreed while the Trimble ban is in place.

At the meeting, which Mallon attended to show solidarity with de Brun and to uphold the agreement, the SDLP deputy leader warned it may be "very difficult" to keep the Executive going through the current political crisis.

Weapons "secure"

Meanwhile, the two international arms inspectors said that weapons contained in the IRA dumps examined by them are both "useable" and "secure." It came after newspaper speculation that the dumps held only obsolete weapons.

Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, one-time general secretary of the ANC, carried out a re-inspection of the arms dumps last week. Both men visited Northern Ireland and held meetings with the pro-agreement parties to discuss the outcome of their inspections. They also held talks with Blair.

Ahtisaari and Ramaphosa said the dumps they inspected had contained substantial" amounts of weapons.

"We have formed the distinct impression that the IRA are serious about the peace process," Ramaphosa said. "We are even more convinced about their intentions after going back for re-inspection and finding that the arms dumps had not been tampered with and that they have remained secure."

Ahtisaari referred to his previous military background as a chief of staff of the Finnish army as he described the weapons inspected as being capable of causing destruction.

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