By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday for six hours of talks at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, but he conjured up little progress toward resolving the stalemate that has stalled peace negotiations.
In a series of bad-tempered interviews coinciding with the talks, the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin continued to snipe at each other while Blair’s press spokesman struggled to put a positive spin on the proceedings.
Talking with reporters at Hillsborough, the prime minister warned against expectations of breaking the deadlock while saying that the Good Friday agreement remained the only show in town.
"I see possibilities, but I’m not going to put it higher than that," Blair said. "It would be wrong to raise expectations," until the outline of a way forward could be found, he said.
The prime minister was due to meet with all the major parties on Tuesday afternoon and then head to Dublin for talks with the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
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Blair said that the majority of the arguments between the parties had been agreed, but that one problem continued to "upset" the process.
He said it was essential for republicans to convince unionists that there would be no return to violence. But republicans also needed to be assured that unionists were genuine about entering into partnership, governing on the basis of equality, he said.
Speaking during the Blair visit, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble accused the Irish government of failing to "deliver" IRA arms decommissioning.
"We were led to believe the Irish government could bring pressure," he said. "But in January and February they did not in fact deliver. The Irish government has to rethink their strategy. Giving republicans carrot after carrot is not going to work."
Trimble said that if a breakthrough in the current impasse was not made by May 22 — the decommissioning deadline set out in the agreement — there would have to be a serious rethink of the whole agreement.
Without absolute clarity and confidence that decommissioning would happen, no one could move forward, Trimble said.
The Sinn Fein national chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said at Stormont Monday that if the Executive was revived, republicans needed to know it was not being implemented for a "trial period, but is the real thing."
Blair’s spokesman said that the deadlock would only be resolved if the agreement was implemented in full and if that was going forward there would be no excuse for the paramilitaries not to signal their intentions to decommission.
He said the "ambiguity of the past" had to be replaced by unequivocal language. The two governments could give a strong lead but the parties had to follow.
Blair’s visit came as Trimble announced that he was moving to remove members of the Orange Order from his party’s governing council. The Orange Order recently supported an attempt by a party hard-liner to take over the UUP leadership. His challenger, Rev. Martin Smyth, was a former grand master in the order.
Trimble’s move to purge his party’s ruling body of Orange Order members breaks a large voting block that was turning increasingly against Trimble and his support of the agreement. Trimble was himself once an Orange Order member and his party has traditionally affiliated itself with the Protestant fraternal group.
Setting aside party ties to the hard-line element would allow Trimble more maneuvering room in coming negotiations to re-establish the power-sharing government. A period of negotiations leading up to Easter and, if required, right up to the May 22 target deadline are now expected.
After that, it’s believed politics will wind down for the summer, in the hope that a reasonably quiet marching season could lead on to renewed negotiations in the autumn. But Trimble could then face another rival leadership bid.
Adding to Trimble’s woes this week, a former leading unionist in his own constituency who defected last year announced he had now joined the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP and could run as a unity anti-Agreement candidate at the next general election.
Denis Watson joined the DUP six weeks ago. He is the County Armagh Grand Master of the Orange Order and has been a leading hard-line figure in its campaign for an uninterrupted march down the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road.
Sinn Fein victory
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein was celebrating a by-election result winning the party’s Barry McElduff a seat on Omagh District Council, part of the West Tyrone constituency, and a claim that Sinn Fein holds pole position to win a Westminster seat at the next general election.
The West Tyrone seat has a nationalist majority, but a split Sinn Fein-SDLP vote has handed the seat to the anti-agreement UUP MP, Willie Thompson, a leading campaigner against both the agreement and his own party leader.
The real dogfight in the constituency is over who has the best chance of unseating Thompson — the SDLP’s Joe Byrne or Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein. Whoever can convince the nationalist electorate that he has the best chance of defeating Thompson could win the seat.