By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Political reaction north of the border to Tony Blair’s historic speech in Leinster House Thursday varied from the warmly supportive to the scathing as each of the parties focused on what best suited their political position.
The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, welcomed it as a "normalization" of relationships between the two jurisdictions, and particularly of the British-Irish axis, as opposed to the Belfast-Dublin one — but the UK Unionists and the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP were sharply critical.
Paisley said the speech was stage-managed and it was clear Blair was on the road to surrender and Dublin rule, while Bob McCartney of the UK Unionists said the speech amounted to nothing more than "schmaltz and spin."
In stark contrast, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, said it had confirmed the days of the old quarrel between Ireland and Britain were over and a wind of change was blowing through both islands.
In the face of repeated suggestions from reporters that the Blair speech amounted to a demand for IRA decommissioning, the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, refused to accept the speech amounted to that. He welcomed the "focus" put on the peace process by Blair’s visit.
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Meanwhile, Mitchell, the former chairman of the talks that produced the Northern Ireland agreement, has revealed he turned down an offer to chair a commission to implement the deal, without saying why.
Mitchell was in Belfast last week after receiving the freedom of the city of Cork, but insisted it was a private visit and would not give details of his discussions with the political parties, other than to say the people had given their verdict.
There have been widely differing views on the decommissioning stalemate, with David Ervine of the PUP predicting the process was doomed and would collapse by mid-January unless there’s agreement but with Trimble denying any crisis.
Sinn Fein’s chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, has backed a warning from Seamus Mallon that the peace process will be in crisis soon unless decisions are taken. He said there was a considerable danger the Good Friday agreement could be destroyed.
"I think there is a grave danger," he said, "I think Mr. Mallon is correct to point that out. You can only stretch a piece of elastic so far before it snaps. I don’t think anyone could be as precise as to say when it will happen — but be aware that there is a significant difficult and a huge credibility gulf opening up."Adair on temporary leave
Meanwhile, the release of prisoners continues with loyalist leader Johnnie Adair being cheered and mobbed by a crowd of about 50 men outside the Maze jail as he was released on temporary home leave.
Adair was convicted of directing terrorism and sentenced to 16 years. Earlier objections by the Northern Ireland Office to him being included in the early release scheme were dropped this week. Adair, nicknamed "Mad Dog," is expected to be released permanently next year.
Two men convicted for their part in the murder of British Army corporals Derek Wood and David Howes were released from jail this week. The corporals were killed after they drove into a republican funeral of one of the three people killed by loyalist Michael Stone at the 1988 funeral of the Gibraltar Three.
Harry Maguire and Alex Murphy were sentenced to life for murder, although it was never alleged they had actually pulled the trigger that killed the two corporals. They have spent the last 10 years in jail.