By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — This Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Council meeting is now expected to impose new deadlines for IRA decommissioning, using the sanction of a progressive withdrawal by the party from the workings of the Good Friday agreement if they are not met.
Behind-the-scenes moves are under way within the UUP to come forward with an agreed formula that can unite all sections of the party in toughening up its stance on IRA decommissioning.
These moves may not be successful, but either way the peace process is likely to face great dangers in the months ahead. Experience strongly suggests that if the UUP insists on new deadlines, the IRA will resist decommissioning.
The use of ultimatums effectively rewrites the 1998 agreement and will doom it, according to the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.
There is as yet no formal motion agreed to put before the 860 delegates ahead of Saturday’s ruling meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, but it seems certain the delegates will demand their ministers pull out of the power-sharing Executive in the absence of what’s being called "product" – a physical handover of arms.
Unless the party leader, David Trimble, faces down his harder-line colleagues, the UUP is likely to threaten to cause the collapse of the political institutions if there is no new concession from the IRA.
A similar "no guns, no government" tactic led to the collapse of the Executive last February. Many believe the process will not be able to sustain another such collapse.
Then the peace process was rescued when the IRA agreed to allow independent international inspections of its sealed arms dumps.
This time, however, there will be the added irritant of the legislation on policing reform – initially published to nationalist outrage days after the IRA’s arms move in May.
The Police Bill, originally meant to implement the proposals of the Patten Commission, is generally viewed among nationalists as a watered-down Patten. Despite months of nationalist lobbying, little of the bill’s contents have been changed.
Adams, for his part, said the only people who would benefit from the collapse of the agreement would be anti-agreement unionists. He pointed out that progress had been made on the arms issue and if the political parties continued to move forward collectively, all the problems could be resolved and the gun finally removed from Irish politics.
Adams spoke after the UUP deputy leader, John Taylor, called for a "clear and specific timetable" to be drawn up to remove Sinn Fein from office.
If after Saturday’s meeting Trimble is forced to pull out of the Executive, it is unlikely he could continue as leader. The likeliest outcome, however, is a tougher UUP line on decommissioning aligned with a timetable of demands, putting off the ultimate showdown.
Meanwhile, President Clinton has called on politicians not to give up on the agreement and said he hoped to visit Northern Ireland soon. In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, Clinton said its implementation would make Northern Ireland "a beacon of hope for those who struggle for reconciliation and peace in every corner of the world – from the Balkans to the Middle East."