By Anne Cadwallader
NEWRY, Co. Down — With no sign yet of any breakthrough in the peace process, the SDLP leader, John Hume, has challenged fellow Nobel prize-winner and Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble over decommissioning.
Hume, speaking at the SDLP annual conference at the weekend, went on to ask unionists if their demands on IRA disarmament, as a precondition to progress, was a "negative posture" that did little to enhance the peace process.
"We are now at a critical stage in the implementation of the agreement," the SDLP leader said. "Inevitably it was bound to unveil some differences of interpretation and intention. None more so than on the question of the decommissioning of arms.
"There is no precondition of decommissioning under the agreement. Nor is their any precondition for decommissioning under the agreement.
"It is the will of the people that disarmament takes place — as provided for in the agreement — as part of the full implementation in parallel with its other provisions.
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"We have to ask ourselves whether adopting tactics or rhetoric which create impediments around this issue is the most constructive contribution that can be made to this task.
"Is it the best use of a party’s own influence to adopt negative postures which do little to enhance or encourage the positive influence which we need others to use to good effect?
"We must do all we can to make disarmament happen as soon as possible within the time scale for the [decommissioning] Commission’s work, not least by doing all we can to implement all other aspects of the agreement in their own terms as soon as possible."
Hume was responding to comments from the Ulster Unionists, and their leader, Trimble, demanding prior decommissioning from the IRA before Sinn Fein can join the proposed power-sharing Executive, whose creation the UUP says may have to be postponed until February.
Mo vs. Conservatives
The British Conservative Party, meanwhile, has also joined in the debate, with its leader, William Hague, Northern Ireland spokesman, Andrew Mackay, and chairman, Michael Ancram, all demanding the suspension of the prisoner-release scheme until decommissioning begins.
Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, said in response that she couldn’t change the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. She described the Conservative Party calls as "unhelpful" and said a balanced approach had to be taken without rewriting the agreement.
The row continued all week, with the Ulster Unionist security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, demanding that some weapons be handed over after the release of more than 200 more prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement.
But another Protestant voice, the Rev. John Dunlop, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, said the top priority should go toward moving the peace process forward with decommissioning as only a secondary consideration.
This is not the first time Dunlop has stepped into a controversy involving the UUP. His is a liberal voice which sometimes infuriates hardliners.
He said decommissioning was important, but as a confidence-building measure more than on strict security terms — the clear implication being that he believes republicans no longer intend using their arsenal for offensive purposes.
David Ervine of the PUP said collapse was on the cards if the UUP and Sinn Fein stuck to their positions. Loyalist decommissioning was undeliverable at this stage, he said.
LVF cease-fire recognized
Meanwhile, the British government has recognized the LVF cease-fire and there are reports that the group may start handing over its weapons within weeks. The INLA and Real IRA cease-fires, however, have not yet been recognized as complete and unequivocal.
The LVF was set up by dissident loyalists and carried out a series of sectarian assassinations of Catholics, including the murder of teenage Bernadette Martin as she slept in her Protestant boyfriend’s house. It was also responsible for the Poyntzpass double murder earlier this year in which a Catholic and Protestant were killed.
Republicans called this a "ruse" and wouldn’t have any influence on them or on the IRA’s stand on decommissioning, adding many people believed the Red Hand Defenders" who killed North Belfast Catholic Brian Service last month, was a flag of convenience for the LVF.
The British government has continued to scale down troop numbers in Northern Ireland, which now stands at its lowest since 1970. The British Army is also to remove three vehicle checkpoints in Bessbrook village as part of an overall troop reduction in the North.
Four hundred more troops have returned home to Britain from their barracks in Armagh City. RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan said the security situation would be kept under scrutiny and further progress would depend on his assessment of the situation.
Reaction from people in South Armagh was cautious. A spokesperson for the South Armagh Farmers and Residents Association said it wanted all checkpoints removed. She complained that people in the village had been under virtual curfew for years, unable to move about in their cars after nightfall. The last soldier to be killed in the North, Lance Cpl. Stephen Restorick, was shot dead at a checkpoint in Bessbrook in 1996.
Maze report published
Also last week, the Ramsbotham report on the Maze was published, saying the jail is not safe either for staff or inmates. It said the prison was a unique institution and this should be officially recognized.
A regime where prisoners effectively ran their own wings was not satisfactory, it said. The report said prison warders were battle-weary and traumatized and it recommended a service medal for warders about to lose their jobs.
In the continuing dispute over the Orange protest at Drumcree, Joel Patton, the hardline leader of the Spirit of Drumcree group within the Orange Order, has been expelled.
He has already organized a protest meeting against his expulsion, but the Order’s grand master, Tommy Saulters, has backed the move.
Patton was involved in an altercation with the Rev. William Bingham at a Twelfth demonstration in Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, last July. He was objecting to Bingham’s call for the Drumcree protest to be ended after the three Quinn brothers were burned to death.
He was also objecting to the presence of an IRA informer, Sean O’Callaghan, who has been advising the Orange Order on press relations. The altercation was captured on camera and it led to disciplinary proceedings against Patton that culminated in his expulsion.