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Monday, July 12, 1999 Published at 20:48 GMT 21:48 UK

UK Politics

Blair publishes 'failsafe' plan

Tony Blair is hoping to get a cabinet for Stormont within days

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has published emergency legislation aimed at breaking the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Search for Peace
Mr Blair's official spokesman said the government was now "hopeful" that the devolution of power from Westminster to Northern Ireland could take place by Sunday.

The Northern Ireland Bill is designed to give the Ulster Unionists, who wish to retain ties with the UK, the "failsafe" guarantees they need to enter into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

Its publication came as the most important Protestant parade of the Northern Ireland marching season passed off peacefully in Belfast. Up to 20,000 members of the Protestant Orange Order marched near a mainly Catholic area amid a huge security operation.

Speaking after more than an hour of talks at Downing Street with the prime minister, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, responded to the bill with caution. He said his party would seek to make changes to it when it entered the House of Commons on Tuesday.

[ image: David Trimble will be tabling amendments to the bill]
David Trimble will be tabling amendments to the bill
Refusing to comment on the bill in detail, Mr Trimble said: "There are still continuing problems, but there are still continuing consultations going on."

The bill is designed to reassure unionists that Sinn Fein would not be able to share power in Northern Ireland's government if the paramilitary IRA failed to decommission its weapons.

Robin Oakley reports: "Ulster Unionist leaders were still looking for greater safeguards"
But the unionists have also been calling for a commitment that a new executive would be formed even if Sinn Fein were excluded from holding office.

In practice such an assurance would require the backing of the nationalist SDLP, which has so far rejected calls for such an undertaking.

'Bill lacks failsafes'

The Conservatives have already joined the Ulster Unionists in declaring that they will seek to make changes to the bill.

The Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Andrew Mackay, said: "Regrettably, the Northern Ireland Bill, finally published late this afternoon, does not include the failsafe promised by the prime minister.

[ image: Andrew Mackay: Bill is just
Andrew Mackay: Bill is just "vague promises"
"There is no tight, transparent timetable [on decommissioning] only vaguer promises.

"There is no exclusion clause which would remove Sinn Fein from the executive if the IRA fail to decommission on time and there is no clause to halt the government's early release of terrorist prisoners if any of the paramilitaries, republican or loyalist, fail to decommission," he said.

Sinn Fein have also expressed reservations to the bill, which they say would breach the Good Friday Agreement.

The party Chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said that under the Agreement no party could be excluded from the executive.

[ image:  ]
Party assembly member Bairbre de Brun said: "This legislation is unnecessary.

"It is pandering to the ever-increasing demands of unionism, and of the securocrats who have consistently sought to obstruct the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and to undermine the peace process."

But ministers are hoping that republicans will be reassured by a provision in the bill allowing the fail safe mechanism to be activated if the unionists default on their obligations to bring about devolution.

Tight timetable

The bill will go to the Commons on Tuesday where ministers hope MPs will approve it before passing it on to the House of Lords on Wednesday and Thursday.

If the bill then clears Parliament the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, will be able to trigger the d'Hondt mechanism for appointing ministers in the new power-sharing executive.

The next day the devolution order would be laid, with the transfer of power taking place on Sunday.

But even if the bill does make it through Parliament the 110-strong executive of the Ulster Unionist Party still has to decide, when it meets on Wednesday, if it is prepared to enter into government with Sinn Fein.

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