By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — Sinn FTin and the Ulster Unionist Party held their first ever official bi-lateral meeting in the history of Ireland on Wednesday. And, according to sources for both sides, while not exactly cordial, neither was it a “slanging match”.
Although David Trimble, the UUP leader, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn FTin president, have held four private meetings before, delegations from the two parties have never met across a table until now.
There were no handshakes, and no breakthroughs but the UUP appeared anxious to convince Sinn FTin that it was genuinely committed to “working” the Good Friday Agreement.
The UUP did not back down from their absolutist stand on the need for prior decommissioning by the IRA before Sinn FTin can take up its two ministries in the proposed power-sharing Executive.
“The political landscape is changing, a new geography is emerging, that of the pro and anti-agreement parties” Adams said after the meeting. Trimble was not so warm, merely saying the Sinn FTin side had repeated its stand on decommissioning which he had heard many times before.
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“The only way all the guns will be removed from Irish politics is through implementing the agreement,” a Sinn FTin source said. “This was a good week for Trimble, and he should build on that”.
Sinn FTin also had a meeting with the church and government committee of the Presbyterian Church at Stormont on Wednesday of last week. Afterwards, the Presbyterians, led by Moderator, John Dixon, said decommissioning was a vital confidence-building measure.
But Sinn FTin saw the problem in a wider context. “We have to start looking at decommissioning as a joint problem to be solved rather than a collision course” said a party source.
At their meeting at Downing Street on Tuesday last week, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and Adams both concluded the paramount aim was to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, whatever the difficulties it faces.
“It must survive, it cannot be allowed to collapse. There is an interdependence building up between Gerry Adams and David Trimble, but Trimble must not ask too much from us, he must not ask for something which is not deliverable” said the Sinn FTin source.
He wondered if unionists “really want to squander this chance for peace on the difference between IRA guns being out of commission, being silent — and being decommissioned.”
Republican sources say the IRA would split apart if decommissioning was conceded at this stage.
Sinn FTin sources said that if the unionists continue to demand decommissioning, the British government might persuade them to change their minds by telling them that, with or without an executive and an assembly at Stormont, the rest of the Agreement — the bits they don’t like – will be implemented as planned.
With the chair of the Decommissioning Commission, General John de Chastelain, and Gerry Adams both out of the country until the end of February, there’s only one week next month before the March 10 deadline for the setting up of the shadow Executive.
Meanwhile, there were signs this week that unionist were changing their tune just a little. John Taylor, the UUP deputy leader, said that if de Chastelain gave his word the IRA had begun disarming, that would be good enough.
Previously, his party leader, David Trimble, had insisted that decommissioning, “credible and verifiable”, would have to take place in front of the TV cameras.
Stephen King, Taylor’s spokesman, told the Irish Echo that “while proof of decommissioning will have to be shown to the public, television is not the only way. There need not be pictures of semtex actually being exploded, but the public is so jumpy they won’t trust anyone’s word alone.
“So de Chastelain will have to show by some means that there has been actual destruction of weapons, either by his agency or by the IRA itself, and this must be clear to the public.
“There was a slight opening, a flexibility, in what John Taylor said, but it will not be sufficient for de Chastelain to purely issue a statement that some IRA weapons are out of commission. There must be some evidence, some proof, of actual destruction of weapons, not just an announcement that the weapons are out of commission”, said King.
The IRA position, however, remains apparently fixed. There is no chance of decommissioning at this stage, if ever, according to republicans. The idea of simultaneous decommissioning, along with the setting up of the Executive appears, at this stage, to be a non-starter.