By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The British and Irish governments are to get all the pro-Good Friday agreement parties around a table before the end of the month in a bid to stave off the latest resignation threat from the Ulster Unionist Party.
The UUP leader, David Trimble, is once again coming under pressure from the hardline right-wing of his party, who are furious at renewed claims of IRA involvement with FARC rebels in Colombia.
Trimble roundly defeated a move by the Lagan Valley MP, and leadership pretender, Jeffrey Donaldson, at a UUP executive meeting on Saturday, to set a deadline of July 1 for UUP ministerial resignations, in the event the British government does not move first.
But Donaldson made it clear he will fight on to get the UUP to punish Sinn Fein for perceived breaches of the IRA cease-fire, and Trimble had to promise his party a further meeting in July to stave off opposition.
If the four UUP ministers resign, it could force the collapse of the assembly and power-sharing executive. The anti-agreement wing of the UUP is already planning to call a full meeting of the party’s ruling Council in early July, however, where such a demand would be made.
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To prevent resignations, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair has agreed to take part in crisis talks with the Irish government and pro-agreement parties, probably on June 26.
The request for the meeting was made by Trimble on the fringes of the British-Irish Council meeting in Jersey on Thursday. A British government source said: “Mr. Trimble proposed an urgent meeting to address the current crisis. That is being arranged.”
The crisis arose after the BBC in Northern Ireland ran what it claimed was an exclusive report naming three alleged IRA members and saying the IRA’s Army Council had approved of weapons training and procurement in Colombia.
The BBC said its sole source for the allegations was an unnamed British security official, and admitted there was no other evidence for the allegations, which the IRA have again denied. Although the report said little that was new, it caused ripples in the peace process with anti-agreement Unionists seizing on it to make difficulties.
The Sinn FTin assemblyman for North Belfast, Gerry Kelly, said: “We have heard all of these unfounded allegations repeated time and time again. There is nothing new in them. . . . It is clear that the needs of the peace process are not served by this type of media sensationalism. My concern is about what is happening in places like the Short Strand and the need for all political leaders to use their influence to make sure that this summer passes off peacefully.”
There was a more upbeat note following a meeting held on Monday between Trimble and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, that was variously described as “positive” and “workmanlike.”
Trimble said Unionist confidence in the process was ebbing away with more revelations about IRA actions at home and abroad, while Adams said he understood that Unionists had serious and genuine difficulties.
“There needs to be a restoration and rebuilding of confidence in view of what Unionists see as continuing republican involvement in violence against the backdrop of Colombia, Castlereagh, etc.,” Trimble said.
Trimble made it clear there was need for action by republicans to halt the slide in Unionist confidence in the entire peace process.
“We need to see rapid progress towards a situation where everybody is demonstrably operating only by exclusively peaceful and democratic means,” he said. “That means facing up to the existence of paramilitary organizations and the need for them to change.”
Adams said everyone has a responsibility to “bring a calming influence to try to bring the violence to an end” and said he understood the difficulties within Unionism in the wake of the continuing allegations about IRA activity.
Adams said there is a similar problem for Nationalists and a lack of confidence in the intentions of the British government, loyalist paramilitaries and the intentions of Trimble himself.
“It is very, very important that we set an example and make it very clear that there is only the Good Friday agreement and that there is no alternative,” he said. “I don’t think bringing sanctions against any party is the way to go forward.”
Adams said Nationalists still wanted action on issues such as policing, demilitarization and human rights. “The big, pressing issue is to ensure that people who are facing July with some anxiety have some sense of confidence that this is going to be a calm July and this month isn’t going to end as it began,” he said, referring to the upcoming marching season.