June 23-29, 1999 By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — With pressure mounting on political leaders in Stormont this week as they enter last-ditch discussions to save the Good Friday agreement, few observers are giving the talks much chance of success.
The taoiseach and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are expected in Belfast later this week in a desperate bid to break the deadlock in time for the June 30 absolute deadline for the devolution of power.
There are fears, however, that the Ulster Unionist line on decommissioning could harden even further with news that the dissident anti-agreement MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, is about to rejoin his party’s negotiating team.
Donaldson walked out of Stormont over a year ago, in the final hours before the agreement was struck, because he believed decommissioning was not linked sufficiently to prisoner releases. Since then he had rallied anti-agreement protests.
"This is about a fundamental principle," he said on Monday. "Do we have a government that’s based on democracy or do we have people in that government that are wedded to guns and violence? That’s where the UUP stands and we won’t be moving from that."
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Unionist sources say there is now question of the June 30 deadline, and are expected to press the British Prime Minister for a formal "review" of the Good Friday agreement.
Unionists are likely to seek a halt to prisoner releases and the preservation of the political status quo, including the RUC, while putting the Patten Commission, which has been reviewing policing on hold.
If Donaldson is accepted back into the inner circle negotiating team, he will do so only given sufficient assurances that the party will not waver or fudge its line on decommissioning.
That can only spell bad news for hopes of a compromise in time to reach the two government’s self-declared absolute deadline for devolving power to Belfast.
Sinn Fein’s Mitchell McLaughlin has accused the UUP leader, David Trimble, of pandering to the "No" minority within his party. Sinn Fein has also accused the UUP of attempting to blackmail the SDLP by threatening to block the creation of the Executive — and thus collapse the agreement — unless there is an IRA weapons handover.
Martin McGuinness said he believed that the June 30 deadline would be the final one.
"I think, clearly, if there is no devolution of power and move forward by everyone together, at least on the pro-agreement side, that the assembly will fall on June 30. I think there is no doubt about that at this stage," he said.
"The only way we can defeat those people is by the pro-agreement parties standing shoulder to shoulder with the vast majority of our people who want to see this agreement work."
McGuinness said he still believed that an agreement could be reached over the next 10 days. "I think we can still do it. Much good work can be done over the course of the coming days and we can move forward to defeat those people who are trying to destroy the agreement and all our hopes for peace on this island," the Sinn Fein negotiator said.
"No Plan B"
Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, speaking in Dublin on Monday, angrily warned she had "no Plan B" in the event of a failure to meet the deadline and that politicians who said to her they were "fed up of going round in circles covering the same material" were not alone.
"If everyone took a step forward, we could get over this hurdle," she said of decommissioning. "That’s what we’re looking for in the next 10 days." Northern Ireland’s parties could not afford to slip beyond the deadline, she warned.
"If we go past the 30th, into Drumcree, into a long summer, a lot of the good work could well be un-picked," she said.
Mowlam said decommissioning was not a precondition for Sinn Fein to take its two cabinet seats on the 10-member executive, but it was still an obligation under the Good Friday Agreement.
She believed decommissioning should happen at any time, but if the executive is formed first, it may give loyalist and republican paramilitaries the necessary confidence to hand over arms.
A measure of the difficulties faced by the two governments in brokering a deal could be seen by the uncompromising statements issued by the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in recent days.
After their executive meeting on Friday, the UUP insisted it would not "sit in an executive with Sinn Fein/IRA until they have begun a credible and verifiable process of decommissioning leading to complete disarmament by May 2000."
A statement issued after the two-and-a-half-hour meeting said: "Democracy cannot be underpinned by illegal arms or terrorist armies. Ulster Unionists have never deviated on this issue."
Anti-agreement UUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, denied the party had effectively "tied David Trimble’s hands behind his back" at the negotiating table. "No-one’s tying his hands," he said.
"The executive unanimously supports the position of the party and that’s clear. It’s not an issue of personalities in the Ulster Unionist Party. It is far more serious than that.
The meeting closed off any room for maneuver available to Trimble, even assuming he had wanted to soften his stance, which seems extremely unlikely in view of repeated reports about imminent threats to his leadership.
In a statement issued on Saturday night, Sinn Fein responded by accusing Ulster Unionists of trying to block progress on the executive. "What the Ulster Unionists are demanding is that Sinn Fein alone must deliver decommissioning while the agreement itself is not implemented," it said.
"Their position is clearly in breach of the Agreement signed in good faith by all the parties. Of those nine parties who signed the Good Friday agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party is the only one not backing its full implementation."