By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — With the deadline approaching for the formation of the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive, David Trimble, the first minister designate, has called for a round of meetings with leaders of all the Northern Ireland parties on Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to find away around the decommissioning dispute, which is blocking the setting up of the ruling body, supposed to take place by Oct. 31.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party, at its annual conference Saturday in County Derry, rallied around its leader’s unflinching demand for decommissioning before Sinn Fein ministers are appointed to their posts.
In his speech, Trimble said he was prepared to wait months for IRA decommissioning, but in the meantime the executive could not be formed, Sinn Fein having excluded itself by failing to live up to its obligations under the Good Friday peace agreement.
Trimble’s offer of more time is being seen as a hardening of his line on decommissioning because it effectively freezes implementation of the agreement.
Power, while being shared with nationalists, would still be "predominantly" in the hands of unionists, he said in a unyielding speech that was designed clearly to settle jangled unionist nerves.
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Earlier, the UUP chief whip, Jim Wilson, put the cat among the pigeons when, in a radio interview, he said, "It was not good to nail yourself so firmly to the post on decommissioning. A mistake has been made in being so firm. There must be room for maneuver".
There were differing interpretations of Wilson’s intervention. Some UUP spin doctors deplored him for being "off message" while others said that Wilson would not have taken such a controversial line without the nod from within the party.
Trimble’s speech was strongly challenged during an assembly debate Monday at Stormont on the continuing crisis in the peace process. Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said he was operating on "the basis of a delusion" if he thought he could keep the party out of power.
"Your position of first minister designate is dependent on you fulfilling the terms of the Good Friday Agreement," he said. "Your position is dependent on adopting an inclusive approach to the sharing of political power. You cannot be first minister unless there is an executive. There cannot be an executive unless Sinn Fein’s rights are accepted."
Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein told the assembly that Trimble had "singularly failed to act in good faith" and had "totally dishonored his pledge of office.". The executive, he noted, was four months overdue and the UUP had prevented the planned program of work in time for the Oct. 31 deadline.
All this was a "glaring breach" of the agreement, said Kelly, who accused Trimble of "obstinacy" that denied Sinn Fein its rights the people of Ireland the benefits they are due.
"No backing down"
Speaking at the annual conference, Trimble said on decommissioning, that "verifiable and credible" progress must be made now in a "visible manner." He said explosives and machine guns could only be used to "destroy people or places."
"This is now the last stage," he said, "so my message is there can now be no backing down on these promises and no turning back."
It was "bunkum," he said, to claim there was any deadline at the end of October for setting up the shadow executive. It was only a target for identifying areas of cooperation, and not a deadline of any kind.
Sinn Fein, he said, had comprehensively failed in all its major policy objectives. It had failed to safeguard Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, failed to prevent a return to Stormont, failed to secure joint-authority and failed to get cross-border bodies with no unionist veto.
On the principle of consent, he said, while the people of Northern Ireland alone decided their future, the union was certain. "Of course, that makes the union secure," he said. "To say otherwise is to say that our people can’t be trusted with the vote."
"After more than a quarter of a century out of power, unable to control our destiny, we are now on the verge of taking power back into our own hands," he said. "Power, it is true, that must be shared with others, but Northern Ireland’s problems will now be tackled by the representatives of Northern Ireland voters — and predominantly by unionists."
Trimble received a polite but not rapturous reception, with a one-minute standing ovation. Some speakers from the floor pleaded for unity, but others opposed the agreement, calling for a return to majority rule.
One delegate said Sinn Fein was a tapeworm in the body politic, another said inviting republicans into government was like inviting Hitler into a synagogue.
One elderly woman delegate called down an Old Testament curse on Gerry Adams.
All the speakers demanded IRA decommissioning before Sinn Fein gets any place in government, but several went further and criticized the agreement itself. Hardliners within the party had accused the hierarchy of trying to stage manage this conference and eliminate signs of dissent.
Willie Ross, a prominent anti-Agreement MP, claimed civil servants were working on a "fudge" to overcome the decommissioning hurdle, but he said the party must not give way. Willie Thompson, another anti Agreement MP, opposed power-sharing and called for a return to majority rule.