By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, is insisting that British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam take sanctions against Sinn Fein as a consequence of alleged IRA activity involving the murder of a North Belfast man on July 30 and a Florida gun-running operation.
But with the Northern Ireland Office confirming that, under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, Sinn Fein cannot be excluded from next month’s review of its workings, the only option open to Mowlam appears a suspension of the early release of republican prisoners.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has warned Mowlam that such a move could have a "serious" effect on his party’s decision on whether to take part in the review. He also appealed to unionists to end their "cold war" with nationalists.
"That is the only way forward," he said, referring to the Good Friday peace agreement. "The core of this process is to establish the primacy of politics and to show that politics can and does deliver."
The Sinn Fein ard comhairle meets in early September to decide if it will participate in the review of the implementation of the decommissioning section of the agreement, which will be chaired by U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
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Responding to demands by unionists to declare that the IRA has broken its cease-fire, Mowlam said: "If I have to act, as I have acted in the past, I won’t shirk that duty."
After meeting with Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews on Monday, she reiterated that she would announce her government’s attitude toward the cease-fire within days. She said she won’t act against Sinn Fein until she has more information from the U.S. and Irish police services on whether the IRA was behind a recently discovered Florida gun-running operation that has resulted in four arrests in Miami and Philadelphia.
For his part, Andrews said the Irish government is satisfied that the cease-fire is intact.
Meanwhile, as the British government continues to inquire about who was responsible for the murder of Charles Bennett in Belfast on July 30, Trimble told Mowlam that failing to punish the IRA for the killing would be akin to licensing murder.
Trimble said his decision not to agree to share power with Sinn Fein in an executive had been retrospectively vindicated by IRA actions. His party, he said, was "doubly glad" it had refused to nominate ministers to the executive in July.
Also, citing the Patten Commission’s upcoming report on policing, Trimble warned that any tampering with the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or disbandment of the force would create a crisis of confidence within the unionist community.
Republican sources say that if early prison releases are halted, temporarily, as a punishment for the IRA’s involvement in actions outside the jail, the prisoners will reluctantly accept that sacrifice without creating problems for the Sinn Fein leadership. They will also, however, back Sinn Fein in challenging such sanctions.
Earlier, already presumably aware that exclusion from the review was not an option available to Mowlam, Ulster Unionists had urged her to put Sinn Féin’s record "under the spotlight of democracy."
UUP security spokesman Ken Maginnis last week claimed that the IRA wanted to abandon the agreement, but that society did not want "terrorists and terrorist-linked parties" to be allowed to walk away from the peace process.
The Rev. Ian Paisley-led Democratic Unionist Party and Robert McCartney’s UK Unionists called for Sinn Fein to be excluded from the political process.
McGuinness has continued to insist that, in his view, the IRA cease-fire remains intact. He blamed the British government for the failure of the political process to deliver a devolved administration. He said questioning the IRA cease-fire was a unionist excuse to delay the implementation of the agreement.
"I think that what we have to do is recognize that the unionist political leadership, who have refused to implement the Good Friday agreement, have continuously used every device and excuse to prevent the change that was promised in the agreement," he said.
The Progressive Unionist Party said after its talks with Mowlam that all parties should be concentrating on the problems in the political process and not on the state of the paramilitary cease-fires.
The PUP’s assembly members, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, warned that the current question mark over the IRA cease-fire could pollute the atmosphere in the run up to next month’s review.
The SDLP leader, John Hume, has refused to be drawn on speculation that the IRA cease-fire was not holding. His party colleague Sean Farren said that, while the SDLP abhors the killing of the North Belfast man and the possibility that republicans have been importing weapons, it is not in favor of the expulsion of any party from the political process.