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Euro campaigns dim hopes for North breakthrough

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Chris Thornton

BELFAST — The prospect of a settlement in the North being reached by the end of June appeared even more remote this week after Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble conceded that there could be "a temporary breakdown" in the peace process.

With all parties concentrating on the June 10 election to the European Parliament, there has been no movement over a breakthrough as the countdown continues toward the "absolute deadline" imposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair has threatened to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly if the parties cannot reach an agreement by June 30.

Trimble said he believes the underlying trend in the peace process is positive, but faces continued pressure from anti-agreement elements in his own party and an electoral threat from the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists. With reports of senior party colleagues prepared to challenge Trimble’s leadership if he admits Sinn Fein to a power-sharing executive, he seems ready to allow Blair’s deadline to pass.

The Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein continued to blame each other for the impasse. Trimble told a Toronto audience that he could not form the executive — a Cabinet-style body that must include the UUP, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein — without the decommissioning of IRA weapons, but said Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had developed "cold feet" on the issue.

"He wants me to jump first with the prospect that he might possibly, some time in the distant future, follow me. But that is not good enough," Trimble said. He said decommissioning was the "litmus test of commitment to peace and democracy."

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Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator and executive member-in-waiting, said Trimble’s position was "ill thought out and flawed." He highlighted reports that the only group to decommission weapons so far, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, was still engaging in acts of violence.

"I don’t believe that he will find many people from either tradition in agreement with this interpretation of commitment to peace and democracy," McGuinness said. "It is time Ulster Unionists stopped this time wasting and joined with the rest of us in establishing the institutions and implementing the program of work as voted for by the vast majority of the people."

After hearing threats to Trimble’s leadership from colleagues in the British Parliament, UUP deputy leader John Taylor repeated that there would be no softening of their position. "Ulster unionists will not be in an executive with Sinn Fein unless there is actual decommissioning by the IRA; that is why I repeat that there is only a 1 percent chance of an executive being formed by the June 30 deadline laid down by Tony Blair," he said.

"It is time everyone faced the reality of the situation and prepared for the aftermath. Even if we fail to form an executive by June 30, I would argue strongly for the retention of the elected Assembly."

Pols in retreat

The forthcoming European election, for three seats in the Strasbourg Parliament, has not improved the prospects for a settlement, forcing most of the North’s political parties to retreat from anything that could be seen by hardline supporters as a concession.

Alliance Party leader Sean Neeson has characterized the main battle of the election, pitting Paisley against John Hume of the SDLP, as being "between Super Prod and Super Taig." Paisley has won the most votes in every European election in the North, but finished only 1,200 votes ahead of Hume last time.

Paisley has called the election a rerun of last year’s referendum on the Good Friday agreement, knowing that a strong anti-agreement vote could destabilize Trimble, whose own candidate, Jim Nicholason, has been further weakened by an affair.

A low unionist turnout might even allow Sinn Fein to win a seat, pushing out the UUP completely. But nationalist leaders and political analysts believe Hume is likely to beat Paisley, underlining his strong personal support and continued nationalist belief in the Good Friday agreement.

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