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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
PM avoids the 'nuclear option'
Police under attack in January, 2002
Street violence has called the ceasefires into question

What options does Tony Blair have in dealing with paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland?

It is another one of those moments in the peace process.

On Wednesday, the British Government delivered its verdict on the ceasefires, and the occasion once again highlighted the imperfect nature of Northern Ireland's peace.

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, wants tougher rules and penalties imposed if the paramilitaries step out of line.

But in making his statement today, what were the options open to Tony Blair?

In truth he has had little room to manoeuvre. If he was to do what some unionists are demanding and remove Sinn Fein ministers from Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive, then the whole political process could come tumbling down.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair: Unlikely to suspend Sinn Fein from the institutions

This was the nuclear option and Mr Blair would not have reached for that button.

What he has done is make clear what his government considers unacceptable in terms of paramilitary activity. And, in doing so, he is aiming to take the IRA and the loyalist organisations beyond their strict definitions of a ceasefire.

The IRA's "complete cessation of military operations" has meant no attacks on the security forces, on loyalists or on so-called "economic targets".

The loyalist "universal cessation of operational hostilities" should have meant no attacks on the Catholic, nationalist, republican community.

The government is asking for more.

Tony Blair has already stressed that in the transition from conflict to peace it is time for the paramilitaries to move on. He has made clear that there must be an end to intelligence gathering, to targeting and to the buying of weapons.

Gerry Adams: Sinn Fein President
Gerry Adams: Said Sinn Fein's exclusion was "not an option"

His government has already "specified" one of the main loyalist organisations - the UDA - which has been linked to a number of sectarian murders, including the recent killing of young Gerard Lawlor.

Specifying the group means the government no longer recognises its ceasefire.

But Wednesday's government statement had more to do with the IRA and this is Tony Blair responding to unionist pressure.

Security assessments have linked the IRA to the theft of police Special Branch documents, to intelligence gathering and to developing new weaponry in Colombia.

Republicans have dismissed the assessments, denied what has been suggested, but they have not convinced Trimble and he has demanded that the government acts.

It will act by issuing a "yellow card" - by warning that paramilitary activity must be a thing of the past. But in responding to Mr Trimble's needs, Mr Blair has angered republicans.

"This is disgraceful," Gerry Adams told a news conference on Tuesday.

He was speaking after meeting the British secretary of state, John Reid.

"It is totally and absolutely unacceptable. We have told Downing Street that. We told Dr Reid that this morning. We have told the [Irish prime minister] taoiseach that," he added.

It may be unacceptable as far as republicans are concerned, but the government will issue a new set of rules for the future - new ceasefire commandments, if you like.

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble
David Trimble: Wants tougher penalites for paramilitaries

"Wednesday is a significant date - drawing a line in the sand," one source said.

"The future starts tomorrow," the source added.

It is from then that the new rules will apply and the source told BBC News Online: "It possibly puts us on track for the nuclear option if the paramilitaries don't change."

But will any of this make a difference?

It might buy the process a bit of time, allow it some breathing space but, while the paramilitaries have a place on the Northern Ireland stage, there will inevitably be problems.

The main target of Blair's comments may well be the IRA, but the loyalists are a huge problem and a major threat.

Some on that side have simply no interest in the peace process and the new rules, the ceasefire commandments, will mean nothing to them.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis





See also:

22 Jul 02 | N Ireland
22 Jul 02 | N Ireland
22 Jul 02 | N Ireland
20 Jul 02 | N Ireland
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