IOL: Hopes rise for pre-Christmas Assembly election

Hopes rise for pre-Christmas Assembly election
19/10/2003 - 11:06:44

Politicians in Northern Ireland were today anxiously waiting to learn if there will be moves over the next five days involving unionists and republicans to secure a pre-Christmas Assembly election.

Hopes of a breakthrough in the peace process rose after Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble signalled to the IRA he needed “a sense that paramilitarism is coming to an end soon“.

However as talks sources responded positively to the speech, they also cautioned against assuming a deal between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists was “in the bag“.

One said: “We are moving in the right direction.

“The mood music has been good and [yesterday’s] speech has added to that.

“However things could still fall flat. Nobody is taking this for granted.”

In a direct appeal to republicans, Mr Trimble told his party conference in Armagh they needed to address the desire among unionists and nationalists for clarity on whether the war is over.

The Upper Bann MP argued: “Neither the government’s formula nor ours say that everything must be done first.

“Rather both envisage a sense that paramilitarism is coming to an end soon.

“And perhaps the most important aspect of that sense is an acknowledgement by republicans that the Belfast Agreement is a settlement – that it provides the full and final closure of the conflict.”

Mr Trimble also said he was not opposed to the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont in the lifetime of the next Assembly - a key demand of republicans in the current round of negotiations with the UUP.

But he told republicans his party could not support the devolution of policing “until Sinn Féin has resolved to support the police and the IRA has taken the inevitable step, consequent on such support, to wind up or transmute its organisation into something entirely peaceful and democratic.”

Talks sources also noted the positive response of Sinn Fein’s chairman Mitchel McLaughlin to the speech.

Mr McLaughlin, who was attending a Sinn Féin conference also in Armagh, said republicans were encouraged by the speech.

“Now we have ended the war in our streets,” he said.

“Let’s now deal with the legacy of that conflict and do it in a measured way as quickly as possible.”

Speculation is mounting that, if a deal is struck between unionists and republicans, prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will fly to Northern Ireland next week to mark the event.

Parties are also expecting the announcement of an Assembly election, possibly in the last week of November.

The leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionists, David Ervine, added to the mood of cautious optimism by saying he believed Gerry Adams was on the verge of securing a huge IRA commitment that could transform the peace process.

“Gerry Adams is going to be responsible for something that changes this process forever,” the PUP leader told his party conference in east Belfast.

“He is going to take the IRA where they have never been before. The question is will David Trimble respond as never before.”

Another Stormont source was also hopeful.

He told PA News : “The choreography could roll out pretty quickly within the next 48 hours if a deal comes together.

“That would mean an election announcement and then generous moves from republicans and unionists.

“This period is really critical if this is all going to work.”

With in-fighting among the Ulster Unionists continuing, Mr Trimble warned three rebel MPs – Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and the Reverend Martin Smyth – who resigned the whip in June in a row over policy, that they needed to toe the line or quit.

His speech angered Jeffrey Donaldson who accused the UUP leader of softening his line on paramilitary decommissioning and IRA disbandment in preparation for a deal with republicans.

Mr Donaldson claimed: “David Trimble is going to go for another half-baked deal with republicans that will fall short of unionist requirements but this time the electorate will have their say on the deal and I believe it will be comprehensively rejected.”

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