By Anne Cadwallader
HILLSBOROUGH, Co. Down — Yet another deadline in the Northern Ireland peace process looms after Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble declared that the British government has until the end of July to come up with a formula to expel Sinn Fein from the power-sharing executive.
If London fails, Trimble has suggested he will resign as first minister or refuse to bring his assembly group back to Stormont when it resumes in September.
The UUP appears split over whether to go into next May’s assembly elections with Trimble as party leader. Some believe they would do better led by a voice more critical of the Good Friday agreement, namely Jeffrey Donaldson.
UUP members are concerned that their main rivals, the DUP, will continue the gains made at the British general election last year. They also fear that Sinn Fein may be the biggest nationalist party at that election, thus taking at least the seat of deputy first minister.
Last Thursday, at Trimble’s insistence, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, arrived for emergency talks at Hillsborough Castle. Trimble told them the British must produce legislation on expelling Sinn Fein from the Stormont power-sharing executive before the House of Commons in recesses on July 24.
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Emerging from an hour-long meeting, Trimble said both governments needed to spell out how they would have to draw a line on paramilitary behavior. He said there is a crisis of confidence in the unionist community.
The transition from violence to democracy and peace appears stalled, he said, insisting that republicans are mainly to blame for an upsurge in violence at intercommunity peace lines in Belfast in recent weeks.
“They [the governments] have to re-create this confidence and do it quick,” he said. “If we don’t see significant progress . . . there is going to be a very serious problem indeed.”
Trimble refused to spell out what he would do in the absence of movement. However, before leaving, he said that both governments need to produce a “clear definition” of what the IRA cease-fire required.
He said he wants to see clear “red lines” on the cease-fire and what action the two governments would take if the lines are crossed.
Sinn Fein maintains the allegations about IRA involvement with rebels in Colombia and claims of its involvement in the break-in at the Castlereagh police station are unproven and that the violence on the streets in recent weeks has been provoked by loyalists, not republicans.
The SDLP also said it disapproved of provoking instability in the democratic institutions set up by the agreement at the behest of the UUP. Its leader, Mark Durkan, said unionists need to pull back from sanctions.
“There is something wrong when the actions of paramilitaries lead to pressure on democratic parties and democratic institutions rather than the anti-democratic elements behind this violence,” he said.