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Wednesday, 2 February, 2000, 00:31 GMT
Q&A: Decommissioning in Northern Ireland

The peace process is on the brink of collapse again after the Provisional IRA failed to convince the UK Government or the Ulster Unionists that they had made "sufficient progress towards decommissioning". Martina Purdy, one of the BBC's political correspondents in Northern Ireland, answers your questions on decommissioning and the peace process.

How serious an impasse is this between Unionists and Sinn Fein ?

Very serious. The gulf between unionists and republicans is as wide as ever, and trust has once again shown to be lacking. This is made worse by the recriminations over who is to blame. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said it was the most serious point in the peace process since 9 April, 1998, the day before the Good Friday Agreement was sealed.

Moreover, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said he did not see how it was possible for a better chance to come. In fact, in future, Ulster Unionists are likely to want more on the table from republicans before they will agree to share power with Sinn Fein again.

Are Sinn Fein right in saying Unionists have imposed a false deadline for decommisioning paramilitaries' weapons?

That is a matter of judgement and political perspective. Sinn Fein are right that nowhere in the Good Friday Agreement does it say weapons have to be decommissioned by 31 January, 1999.

The Good Friday Agreement says the parties agree to collectively use their influence to achieve decommissioning within two years (by May 2000). 12 February 1999 is the date set by the Ulster Unionist Council to review progress on decommissioning.

It is a unionist deadline. First Minister David Trimble, however, said that 31 January was agreed during the Mitchell review as the cut off date for the start to decommissioning of weapons. Sinn Fein disputes this. Senator George Mitchell knows what was agreed but so far he has remained silent.

Is there any optimism that the "breathing space" announced by Peter Mandelson can bridge the gulf between the two sides?

The Secretary of State is not expected to suspend the institutions until he believes there is no other option. He will play for time, and hope that some accommodation can be reached that would buy time.

But the IRA has given no indication of changing their minds on actual decommissioning in the near future and unionists are adamant nothing else will do. As for the review, it is going to be even harder to put the pieces back into place.

The logic of the Mitchell review was guns would only come in the context of government. That would indicate unionists would have to go into government again before any weapons are decommissioned. And Mr Trimble has suggested unionists would not be prepared to jump first again.

What's likely to happen next if the impasse can't be broken?

The danger is the process will drift and a political vacuum will open up which will be filled by anti-Agreement republicans and loyalists who will exploit the discontent on both sides. In the meantime, direct rule is likely to return.

By May, if there is no breakthrough, unionists are likely to pressure the SDLP to agree to set up an executive without Sinn Fein. Provided the IRA ceasefire holds, It is thought the SDLP would not do this, as it would risk political suicide if nationalists perceived this as unjust.

If the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, and rule reverts to Westminster, is the peace process effectively dead ?

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the IRA is not a threat to the peace process. Republicans view the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process as separate issues. If the Agreement fails, it is expected Sinn Fein will continue to pursue what it calls its "peace project".

The mainstream republican and loyalist (IRA, UVF, UDA) ceasefire appears to be stable.

What is David Trimble's position now within his party ?

The Ulster Unionist leader said suspension is inevitable because the Ulster Unionist Council would not tolerate continued power-sharing without decommissioning. Should Mr Trimble try to hang onto office without decommissioning, the view is he would not survive more than a matter of weeks.

But his position nonetheless within his ruling council has been seen to be slipping. He won 70% support from the council, which backed him on the Good Friday Agreement. But only 58% backed the leader on the decision to enter government with Sinn Fein before there was decommissioning.

His enemies in the party will exploit the anger felt by unionists over the RUC reforms and the failure to decommission. Mr Trimble must face his party's executive on Monday and then the following Saturday the ruling council.

The annual general meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council is also due to take place in March. Annually, the council is asked to endorse the leader, and Mr Trimble will be mindful that a leadership challenge is always possible. Even if he survives the challenge, he could be damaged. That aside, he is facing the difficult task of leading a very divided party.

There is talk of a big split in the IRA over decommisioning - is Gerry Adams winning over the sceptics?

The Sinn Fein leadership, like the Unionists, is having difficulty with its grassroots. There are anti-Agreement republicans who wish to return to "physical force" republicanism and are merely biding their time.

While Mr Adams has a loyal base of supporters, he has to be careful not to push his constituency too far and cause a split which could not only destabilise the republican movement but the peace process. Republican sources indicate that the political conditions do not exist for decommissioning.

The concern is decommissioning without support of the broad base would resolve difficulties with the unionists in the short-term but threaten the process.

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