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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 12:40 GMT
'Time running out' for NI

The Sinn Fein chairman has said if the government honours its commitments there could be more movement on IRA decommissioning.

But Mitchel McLaughlin said his party feared time was running out to find a resolution to issues blocking Northern Ireland's political process.

Sinn Fein's leaders met on Tuesday night to discuss talks they have been involved in with the British and Irish governments.

The United States administration has also been involved, as Bill Clinton, who has been influential in Northern Ireland in the past, reaches the end of his presidency.

Mitchel McLaughlin: Calling on the government to make the next move
The talks have focussed on republican and nationalist concern over the implementation of policing reform and demilitarisation of border areas.

Sinn Fein's meeting followed an appeal from Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble to republicans to put pressure on the IRA to begin disarming.

'Room to manoeuvre'

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster on Wednesday, Mr McLaughlin said that while his party was attempting to resolve the outstanding problems, he feared there was only a small window of opportunity.

He said: "We are extremely concerned that we are literally going to run out of time because of the upcoming election situation and the pressures that are building up within the Ulster Unionist Party.

David Trimble is stepping up pressure on republicans
"We have been trying to bring people back to the point of May 6 last year, where there was so much more room to manoeuvre."

The suspended Northern Ireland Assembly was re-established after agreement was reached on how the Good Friday Agreement could be progressed at talks in Hillsborough last May.

This was based on the IRA's offer to begin a verifiable process of putting its weapons beyond use.

Although the IRA allowed some of its weapons dumps to be inspected in June as a confidence building measure, there was no further movement towards arms decommissioning.

'Circular argument'

Mr McLaughlin said the only way out of the "circular argument" would be for the British government to honour its commitments on policing and demilitarisation, which he said had made it "possible for the IRA to respond".

He said: "We have the situation where the IRA have never broken their word.

"The reality is that Peter Mandelson did not deliver on the Policing Bill, despite the commitment by his prime minister to do so.

"He seems to think that he can pressurise the SDLP into accepting less than was promised and in those circumstances that republicans would just roll over."

The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party has been under pressure from the British government to accept the plan for policing reform.

But the party has been in discussions to try to gain concessions on the government's implementation plan for the Police Act, because it feels it does not go far enough towards the original proposals of the Patten report on policing.

Mr McLaughlin also called on the Ulster Unionists to stay engaged with the political process, which he said was "threatened by the dissidents on all sides".

Unionist concern

On Tuesday, speaking on a visit to a Catholic secondary school in Belfast, David Trimble said the onus was on republicans to "prove the war is over through honouring their promises by putting their weapons beyond use".

He said: "The longer they delay, the more they undermine the agreement and their own prospects of continuing to be involved in the institutions."

Mr Trimble is currently engaged in a process of consulting grassroots members of the Ulster Unionist Party, on whether to continue in the assembly powersharing executive in the absence of IRA decommissioning.

It is likely he will face pressure to further sanction Sinn Fein at the next meeting of his party's ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council.

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