By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Northern Ireland’s two most senior politicians, John Hume and David Trimble, have clashed in the continuing row over decommissioning, an issue that is seemingly growing more intractable by the day.
Hume says the issue is a “distraction” and has been “exaggerated,” while Trimble says there must be IRA decommissioning before progress on every other area in the process set up by the Good Friday Agreement.
As the clock ticks away to the Oct. 31 deadline for preparatory work to be completed in advance of the setting up of the North-South Ministerial Council, most of the main players are in the U.S.
It’s not thought that they have any plans while in the U.S. to meet for talks on the impasse, leaving just 10 days at the end of the month to reach agreement.
A senior Sinn Fein source this week described the peace process as being like the Titanic, heading for an iceberg, with the crew warning the captain to steer to starboard.
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“Captain Trimble is on the bridge, with the iceberg marked on the chart. The ship has just left Cobh, and there’s time to chart a different course, but he shows no sign of doing so,” the source said.
There is no sign of the UUP dropping its demand for actual IRA military hardware to be decommissioned before Sinn Fein can take its two seats on the power-sharing Executive.
UUP wants watered down Council
The Ulster Unionist Party has managed to antagonize not only Sinn Fein but also the SDLP by leaking its proposals to the All-Ireland cross-border North-South Ministerial Council.
The UUP proposes seven areas of discussion, but apart from three bodies to investigate legal wrangles over the precise line of the border in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough, they included only such topics as food hygiene and veterinary health.
The SDLP sees cooperation being carried out across the border to key areas such as education and health, promoting industry and tourism on an all-Ireland basis.
The SDLP economic spokesman, Sean Farren, said the UUP proposals were “totally unacceptable” and failed to take account of how beneficial cooperation between North and South could be.
The UUP said it had to be proved to them that cross-border cooperation in areas outside those listed in its proposal would be advantageous.
The SDLP believes the real reason the UUP recommended such relatively unimportant areas for cross-border work is to reduce the mandate, and thus the power, of the all-island council.
The strength of the anti-Agreement camp in the UUP was underlined Saturday by a standing ovation given to the hardline MP for Derry East, William Ross, at a Young Unionist Party conference in Belfast.
Ross said, to applause, that the power-sharing Executive proposed in the Good Friday Agreement was “unworkable” and biased in favor of nationalism. He also said the Agreement gave an unreasonable amount of power to a minority in the North and was unfair to unionists. He urged the Young Unionists to fight back.
A minority of delegates to the conference who support the Agreement did not stand for the ovation, but the overwhelming majority did.
Kelly blames Trimble
When the party leader, David Trimble, arrived, he was politely clapped, but there was little enthusiasm. He said there were “no excuses” and that “if Sinn Fein is allowed to hold onto its weaponry, it will destroy the process, and people should be in no doubt about that whatsoever.”
There was an angry reaction from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who said many people would be “greatly disappointed” by Trimble’s speech.
The UUP leader, said Kelly, “appeared to be preparing the ground for the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. Mr. Trimble is solely responsible for the deadlock and any resulting fall-out. He gave his word and is now breaking it.”
Many now fear the deadline set for the end of October for preparatory work to enable the cross-border bodies to be set up will not be met.
Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin, responding to these concerns, said Trimble should not be allowed to renegotiate the agreement or deny his party the right to ministerial positions.