SATURDAY 11/10/2003 08:45:21 UTV
SF: Ministers set to revive elections

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams were preparing today for arguably their most important face-to-face meeting in the current efforts to revive devolution. By: Press Association

With speculation hardening that the British government may announce next week plans for a November or December Assembly election, the two leaders were expected to meet in Belfast for discussions which could map out efforts to restore devolution.

As parties in Northern Ireland prepared their rank-and-file for an Assembly poll to begin within days, Sinn Fein claimed it believed the British government was extremely close to announcing the election would go ahead.

A party source said: ``We believe the argument for an election has been won.

``Parties expect the government to announce a polling date.

``However, given the bitter experience of the Spring, we are not counting our chickens.``

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pulled plans for a Stormont election four days into the campaign.

He did so because he was dissatisfied with public assurances from the IRA and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that republicans would not do anything inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement.

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been suspended since October last year when the power-sharing executive threatened to collapse over allegations of IRA spying.

Northern Ireland has for the past year been ruled by a team of Northern Ireland Office ministers from Westminster.

Republicans have resisted pressure for the IRA to make an historic declaration that it is ending all recruiting, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, weapons procurement and involvement in all violence.

Over the past week the belief among most participants is that the Republican Movement will fall short again.

However, there is a belief that the IRA or Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams could go further than before in trying to reassure unionists.

There has also been a belief that the IRA is planning a more transparent act of arms decommissioning in a bid to create the conditions for an election.

Sinn Fein leaders Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness were in Downing Street yesterday to meet the Prime Minister and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

US president George W Bush`s special advisor on Northern Ireland Richard Haass is also due to travel to the province on Monday for two days of talks with Northern Ireland parties.

If an Assembly election takes place before Christmas, talks insiders believe the most likely date would be November 13, which would mean that the government would have to declare it before Thursday.

Two other dates have also been considered - November 27 and December 4.

Participants in the negotiations were also placing great emphasis on a proposed photocall tomorrow involving members of a new monitoring body which would scrutinise paramilitary cease-fires in Northern Ireland and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

With the head of the Independent International Commission on decommissioning, General John de Chastelain also in Belfast, a source said: ``All the various elements appear to be there for some choreography in the run up to an election.

``We still have to see if all the moves fall into place.``

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