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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 01:08 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

The quest for peace

The BBC's David Eades answers questions about the latest attempts to break the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace talks.

How would you describe the state of the Northern Ireland peace process?

Fragile to say the least; after ten weeks of negotiation, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has managed to wheedle out of Sinn Fein and the IRA a number of new concessions - only to discover that his party's Assembly group are essentially unimpressed. They took a vote on the proposals yesterday evening, and although we don't have the exact result of that vote, it is clear around half of the members at least rejected the package. Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams said he had been told the Ulster Unionists had said 'No' - and it appears that was the clear message David Trimble passed to George Mitchell even before the vote was taken.

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What is the main stumbling block to breaking the deadlock between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein?

The same stumbling block which has been tripping up the parties to the Good Friday Agreement since it was concluded more than a year and a half ago: namely, the readiness of the paramilitaries to give up their weapons, and the insistence of the Ulster Unionists, that the IRA in particular, must start to decommission before Sinn Fein can expect to take seats in the devolved government of Northern Ireland. The point of the latest negotiations is that the IRA does appear ready to offer something - precisely what is unclear - but it appears to be too little to satisfy the bulk of the UUP.

Is there likely to be movement by the Ulster Unionists away from their 'no guns, no government' stance before they join a power sharing executive?

The short answer is 'No'. But nothing is ever as simple as it might at first appear in these negotiations. Some people believe David Trimble's interpretation of the UUP slogan may be shifting. He prefers to talk about the need for the 'process of weapons decommissioning' to begin before Sinn Fein take up ministerial positions. If the IRA decided to appoint an interlocutor to liase with the independent body on weapons decommissioning that could, conceivably, be considered the first step in the 'process of decommissioning'. But the message at the moment from the UUP's rank and file is that 'no guns, no government' continues to mean just that: if they don't see guns handed over one way or another, then they won't tolerate Sinn Fein serving in an Executive, helping to govern Northern Ireland.

Have the latest developments put the Ulster Unionist's leader David Trimble in a difficult position?

Very much so. The proposals he has put to his Assembly members are the proposals he has thrashed out in painstaking fashion with Sinn Fein. By agreeing to take the outline settlement to his party faithful, he has effectively taken ownership of the settlement himself, and accepted the challenge of selling it to them. This initial setback may not be fatal for the deal - or indeed for Mr Trimble as UUP leader, but it is a severe setback. It looks worse when you consider the reports of a new-found understanding between Mr Trimble and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness; of a readiness to appreciate the difficulties the Republicans have with aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. Undoubtedly, there will be some UUP members who believe Mr Trimble should understand a little less and condemn a little more; they won't appreciate the idea that their leader might be going soft on the enemy, and might compromise on the essential point of 'no guns no government.'

How has Sinn Fein reacted to these latest developments?

Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams made a brief statement last night, after hearing of the UUP's apparent rejection of the outline deal. He said his party was 'deeply disappointed at the turn of events'. He said they had hoped to have success by now, and he urged everyone to reflect on the seriousness of the latest situation.

Will these latest moves affect former US Senator George Mitchell's position as chairman of the review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement?

We shall have to wait and see. Mr Mitchell has called on the party negotiators to return to Stormont on Friday morning. For the past couple of days it has seemed as if his work was already completed. Negotiations between the UUP and Sinn Fein have all but stopped, as the task now is to sell the proposals to their respective parties. But after the latest developments, Mr Mitchell may feel he has to give a little more time to the parties to restore confidence levels. It is unlikely that he will linger for long now, though. He has done as much as could ever have been expected of him. He leaves behind a deal which the negotiators themselves obviously have considerable confidence it is down to the parties to make this work or deal with the consequences of another failure.

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