By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The knife-edge timetable for devolving authority to a power-sharing Executive at Stormont by the weekend was teetering on the brink of collapse this week as the Ulster Unionists decided whether they were on board.
The UUP has suggested radical changes to the British government bill that enacts the proposals on devolution and decommissioning that were put forward by London and Dublin to break the impasse in the peace process.
It seems unlikely that the British government will accept the changes to proposals that were hammered out after five days of talks at Stormont. The bill gives the independent Decommissioning Body the authority to say when a paramilitary group has "defaulted" on its obligation to disarm.
Sinn Fein strongly argues the UUP amendments fall outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement and the SDLP has accused the UUP and Conservatives of "playing politics" with the peace process.
If the amendments fall, the Ulster Unionists are likely to withhold their consent to the setting up of the power-sharing Executive government for Northern Ireland, due to be established on Thursday this week.
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If so, then the tightly scheduled timetable to transfer power to Stormont could fall into disarray. The only option left would be a full review of the Good Friday agreement, leading to an uncertain future for the historic compromise between nationalism and unionism.
The UUP amendments have been jointly raised with the British Conservative Party, a significant breach of the tradition bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland and indicative of how far to the right the Tories, under the leadership of William Hague, have drifted.
In the absence of the changes, the UUP seems unlikely to agree to setting up the Executive, putting three years’ work at risk and precipitating a full-scale political crisis.
The joint Ulster Unionist/Conservative Party amendments stipulate a strict timetable for decommissioning, including:
€ That four days after devolution the IRA must appoint a "contact person" who would have to "give notice to decommission weapons."
€ The IRA would have a limit of four weeks to begin actually decommissioning weapons.
€ The accelerated prisoner-release scheme would be halted for any paramilitary group that doesn’t begin disarming.
€ Sinn Fein would cease to be eligible for places on the power-sharing Executive if the IRA fails to disarm.
€ Scrapping of the Patten Commission on the future of the RUC unless the IRA decommissions.
Sinn Fein opposed
Sinn Fein says even the proposed British legislation is "unnecessary, falling outside the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and legislating for failure."
The party is also vigorously opposing the 32 unionist amendments, claiming they fall outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement and "pander" to the rejectionist wing of the UUP.
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has emphasized the Irish government’s opposition to any proposals that would exclude Sinn Fein. He also said that Sinn Fein’s position on decommissioning "was a deeply important one and should be acknowledged by all of us as a hugely positive and constructive contribution to the search for a compromise."
The timetable for this week, as planned by the two governments, is due to be:
Wednesday — Bill passes through House of Lords, quickly followed by the royal assent. Ulster Unionist Party executive meets in Belfast to debate the final outcome.
Thursday — Assembly meeting to debate DUP resolution on exclusion of Sinn Fein and the triggering of the mechanism setting up the power-sharing Executive, with the UUP getting three seats, the SDLP three, Sinn Fein two and the DUP two. If the UUP refuses to nominate ministers during the Assembly meeting it will end the process.
Friday — Devolution order enacted in the House of Commons, London
Sunday — Devolution comes into force and handover of power from London to Belfast and the Executive.
To facilitate this timetable, late on Monday, the British government published its bill to allow devolution to go ahead this weekend. The draft legislation was a bid to reassure Unionists that they will not have to sit in a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin if the IRA fails to decommission its weapons.
But, after an hour-long meeting with the British prime minister, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said that there were still problems with the bill and that his party would be putting forth amendments.
Sinn Féin was also unhappy with the fail-safe legislation and was seeking legal advice. Assembly member Bairbre de Brun claimed the British government was attempting to railroad through unnecessary legislation without proper consultation.
Under the proposals, it would be up to the Canadian chair of the Commission on Decommissioning, General John de Chastelain, to judge whether any party was in breach of its commitments on decommissioning.
If that were the case, the bill allows for the suspension of all the institutions established under the Good Friday agreement, pending a review of the process by the two governments.
The UUP argues this is unfair, punishing those parties without a paramilitary wing equally with the parties who had defaulted on the obligations under the Agreement and the new bill.
Following the review, the assembly would then be able to debate and vote on what action to take. However, the draft legislation in itself does not allow for the exclusion of Sinn Féin from the executive. That could only happen following a vote of the assembly involving cross-community support.
Rather than suspending all the institutions, should the IRA not decommission, the UUP wants Sinn Fein specifically to be excluded from the Executive, which will govern the North. This, however, would breach the Good Friday agreement.
Sinn Féin negotiator Gerry Kelly urged Blair to stand up to the "unionist veto" and establish the institutions envisioned under the Good Friday agreement. Asked about an IRA statement on decommissioning, he said that it was a matter for the IRA.
The Ulster Unionist Executive met on Friday and adjourned its decision to this Wednesday, issuing a hardline statement in the interim which reaffirmed the party’s stance of "no guns, no government." The party called on the IRA and all paramilitary organizations to start decommissioning immediately.
Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor claimed on Friday that Irish Taoiseach Ahern had given any chance of breaking the impasse the "kiss of death" by claiming Sinn Fein and the IRA were different organizations.
Earlier, Blair said there is little more he can do to help the Northern peace process if politicians fail to break the deadlock over decommissioning. Blair said he had taken the process as far possible and it was up to the Northern politicians to strike a deal.