By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — There were growing hopes last week that, after two days of intense talks at Hillsborough Castle, progress in resolving the deadlocks over policing, paramilitary arms and demilitarization threatening the peace process.
Only two weeks remain before the pressures really begin building within the Ulster Unionist Party for a withdrawal from the power-sharing Executive and a potential meltdown in the run-up to the British general election.
Despite the hopeful signs, there is no guarantee that the process will be saved. Some republicans are talking gloomily of an inevitable breakdown in February and another suspension of devolution that could further seriously damage public confidence in the Good Friday agreement.
After the controversial cancellation of Jan. 23’s scheduled British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin, both governments are anxious to build on what progress was made at Hillsborough.
A leading member of Sinn Fein, however, was outraged that the meeting was postponed, ostensibly to facilitate efforts to break the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
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Mitchel McLaughlin claimed the two governments were covering up for the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, who, he said, was refusing to sign the required papers allowing Sinn Fein’s Barbre de Brun to attend the meeting.
Trimble told the Stormont assembly on Monday that the meeting had been seen by the governments as a "distraction" to the ongoing political discussions, rejecting DUP claims that the Good Friday agreement was in "crisis."
Deputy SDLP leader Seamus Mallon also said the meeting was postponed to allow time for the governments to focus on the current political negotiations, while a senior British government source said it was thought better that officials continue to concentrate on the talks.
However, McLaughlin described the claims as bogus and nonsense. "They are providing a fig leaf for David Trimble," he said. "He has refused to sign the authorization. Clearly both governments have backed down on that."
Trimble already refuses to authorize the attendance of Sinn Fein ministers at meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council.
Meanwhile, the SDLP and Sinn Fein believe their concerns on policing are, for the first time, being taken seriously by Blair, who has asked them to provide concrete proposals that will allow both parties to endorse the new force.
Nationalists are more hopeful now than they were before the Hillsborough summit that Blair is putting the North higher up his list of priorities, although they will not know for some days if a deal is possible.
Unionist sources, however, are predicting meltdown at the next meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council if Blair proposes legislative changes in the Police Bill already agreed by the British parliament.
Blair is also reportedly sympathetic to republican concerns on demilitarization in South Armagh and understands the need for an ongoing program of scaling down the British military presence there.
This will be resisted by the military establishment in London and by the top British Army brass at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn. It’s known that Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson is also opposed to significant moves on demilitarization.
Upsurge in violence
Both republican and loyalists opposed to the peace process have continued to try to kill and injure people this week.
Loyalists also continued their campaign against Catholics living in vulnerable areas, particularly the towns of Coleraine, Larne and Ballymena.
A family escaped unhurt from a pipe-bomb attack on January 16 in Coleraine, Co. Derry, where four members of a Catholic family were asleep at the time. No one was injured in the incident, which happened shortly after midnight.
In Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, another Catholic family targeted in a pipe bomb attack have said they believe the motive was sectarian. The pipe bomb was discovered in the garden of a house at Donnelly Park after a telephoned warning.
David McGinty said his family’s house is the first of a row in a small mainly Catholic rural housing estate, and was probably selected for that reason.
"We don’t bother with anyone and get on with our business. And we have very good neighbors here," he said.
Hours earlier another pipe bomb was made safe in north Belfast. The device was discovered in the garden of an unoccupied house at Cavehill Road and taken away for forensic examination.