By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST – As the May 22 referendum date draws closer, opposing groups within Unionism continue to tear lumps from each other, with some demanding the resignation of its six MPs opposed to the Stormont Agreement.
A private opinion poll conducted by the Northern Ireland Office is alleged to show that 50 percent of Unionists intend to vote No and that three out of four who have recently made up their minds will vote No. Meanwhile, the Rev. Ian Paisley, who is leading the No campaign, pulled out of a scheduled televised debate with David Trimble, the UUP leader, who is pushing for a Yes vote. It is rumored that UUP activists are going to follow Paisley around dressed as chickens.
Armed actions by dissident republican groups also continue, with a threat by a group calling itself the “true IRA” to take the “war” to Britain. This resulted in a security clampdown in nationalist areas of Belfast. The Irish National Liberation Army, meanwwhile, claimed responsibility for an explosive device, thought to be land mine, left in Ballymurphy, West Belfast, on Tuesday. It was defused by security forces.
At the weekend, a group believed to have similar aims to the 32 County Sovereignty committee, announced the “end of the IRA cease-fire” and urged republicans to resume their campaign.
It pledged “our war machine will once again be directed against the British cabinet” and denounced the Belfast Agreement as “partitionist” and Sinn Fein for “playing the game of Collins and De Valera.”
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, has accused the group of making opportunistic PR on the back of his party’s ard fheis and said its leaders were trying to unnerve republicans who were working for peace and a lasting settlement.
The breakaway group is believed to number 150 people, including some skilled ex-IRA bomb-makers, who are led by a former quartermaster general. It claims to have put a new army council and executive in place.
The gardai say at least three former members of the IRA’s Southern command have defected to the group and predict a renewed violent campaign that could be “nasty, sharp but definitely short.”
The group has shown itself capable of constructing large car bombs and of mounting mortar attacks against RUC stations. It has already bombed Armagh and Forkhill bases.
Another mortar bomb attack was mounted on the RUC barracks at Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, last week, disrupting a wedding nearby but causing no damage or injuries.
Damien Gormley, a County Tyrone GAA star, and his bride, Paula, were among hundreds of guests who had to flee a hotel in the middle of their wedding reception as the RUC cleared the area.
Paula’s 93-year-old grandmother and guests from the U.S. were among those who sought refuge as the hotel was cleared. The RUC found the mortar tubes and guests were moving from the hotel when an explosion was heard.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Trimble said he feared IRA weapons could be turned over to the new group, which he said made IRA decommissioning even more important.
Trimble is demanding actual IRA decommissioning before the assembly begins its work, and before Sinn Fein takes up any role in the proposed power-sharing executive.
His deputy, John Taylor, said he “welcomed Sinn Fein’s acceptance that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that this status cannot be changed without the consent of its people.”
Trimble called on the British prime minister, Tony Blair, to make it clear that Sinn Fein could not take part in government before IRA decommissioning, and he said he doubted that he would be in any executive with Adams in the short to medium term.
Also last week, Sinn Fein negotiator, Martin McGuinness was held for 20 minutes by British troops near Strabane. He phoned Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to complain about RUC harassment and intimidation.
Meanwhile, a joint visit to Northern Ireland by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his immediate predecessor, John Major, failed to ignite much interest against the “No” campaign, which is arguing vigorously against the Agreement.
Sinn Fein called a claim from the UUP’s Trimble alleging the party had privately assured the Irish government the IRA would decommission “fanciful,” while Blair said he anticipated actual IRA disarming to begin in June.
Meanwhile, Republican Sinn Fein launched its No campaign in Belfast, accusing Sinn Fein of putting a new obstacle in the way of a United Ireland, rather than a bridge toward freedom.
The party president, Ruairi O’Bradaigh, said he failed to understand why the same people who had helped bring down Stormont in the early 1970s were now seeking to restore it.
Meanwhile, republican sources confirmed an earlier report in the Irish Echo that an IRA meeting over the spring bank-holiday weekend approved Sinn Fein’s role in the Belfast Agreement and gave the go-ahead for the party to take its seats in a new assembly.
Sinn Fein’s Adams has sent his sympathy to the family of 27-year-old Ronan McLaughlin, shot dead by gardai during a foiled security van robbery near Ashford and supported their calls for a full inquiry.
He also called on those responsible for all the circumstances leading up to the killing to reflect on their actions and said they should act in the greater interests of all the people of Ireland and support the quest for justice and freedom.
In the No camp, the leader of the UK Unionist leader, Robert McCartney, accused those campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the May 22 referendum of hiring mercenaries to do their dirty work.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is calling for a “Yes” vote from its 600,000 members throughout Ireland to support the Agreement, as is the Confederation of British Industry.
(Jack Holland contributed to this story.)