Northern Ireland’s major Protestant leader came under fire from both sides Monday as talks on the future of the British-ruled province resumed in Belfast.
As leader of the largest of the eight participating parties, Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble is best placed to influence the pace and outcome of the talks, but the cross fire of criticism is restricting him.
Gerry Adams, leading his IRA-allied Sinn Fein party back into the Belfast negotiations after a four-week absence, asserted that Trimble was too inflexible to “be left in the driving seat.”
And from the Protestant side, the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party attacked Trimble as a compromiser.
Adams appealed for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to pressure Trimble, who opposes Sinn Fein’s goal of abolishing Northern Ireland. Paisley insisted Blair should stay out of it.
Rhetorical sparring between Adams and Trimble is common, but Paisley’s intervention highlighted Trimble’s precarious hold.
Paisley warned that if Trimble cuts a deal involving Sinn Fein, he would marshal Protestant opposition to it.
The British and Irish governments, which have sponsored the talks since June 1996, want most details of an agreement reached by Easter, April 12. Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said she was “stubbornly optimistic” the deadline would be met.
Trimble shrugged off his opponents’ complaints, but then resurrected old stumbling blocks.
He repeated a demand for the Irish Republican Army to start disarming as the only sure way for the IRA to demonstrate it was renouncing violence. That vexing issue encouraged the collapse of a previous IRA truce, but had been kept on the talks’ back burner in recent months.
He said the British government suffered from “selective deafness” when it came to recent violence attributed to the IRA or dissident anti-British groups.
Sinn Fein should be expelled from the talks, he said, if police determine the IRA was responsible for unclaimed car-bomb attacks on two predominantly Protestant towns last month, an unclaimed mortar attack on a police station two weeks ago or a 1,300-pound car bomb seized by police last weekend.
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