Trimble confident he can sell plan to party

BELFAST, MAY. 8. The Ulster Unionist leader, Mr. David Trimble was said to be quietly confident on Sunday that he could sell a new compromise package to his party in the 12 days before it meets to decide whether to return to power-sharing with Sinn Fein without the Irish Republican Army (IRA) giving up any weapons. His opponents said the Provisionals' weekend commitment to allow inspection of some arms dumps fell short of actual disarmament.

However, senior party officials believe it might be enough to convince a majority that the terrorist campaign is finally over and that the suspended power-sharing executive and Assembly should be restored on May 22. Mr. Trimble is seeking an early meeting with the two international statesmen who will be taken to selected arms dumps by the IRA before reporting to Gen. John de Chastelain, the head of the decommissioning body.

The representatives are Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former general secretary of the African National Congress, and the former Finnish President, Mr. Martti Ahtisaari. Mr. Ramaphosa is believed to have persuaded the IRA hardline leader, Mr. Brian Keenan to accept the inspections plan, which should lead to a resolution of the arms impasse by June next year. He has visited IRA prisoners in the Maze jail and his acceptance of the role on Friday before any announcements were made is said to have been crucial.

The American newspaper, Boston Globe said Mr. Ramaphosa is friendly with Mr. Keenan and quoted an IRA member: ``Cyril has street cred with the Army Council, especially Keenan.'' Mr. Keenan's opposition to decommissioning is thought to have scuppered attempts to prevent the suspension of the Stormont executive in February. Mr. Trimble is also on good terms with Mr. Ramaphosa, whom he met during a visit to South Africa in 1997.

The Ulster Unionist Council vote, which will take place on May 20, is expected to be very close. ``It's going to be a very rough two weeks,'' said one senior insider. Another said: ``We would be damn fools to walk away from this. There would be nothing left to negotiate. If we walk away, the IRA will have a mandate to carry on killing people.''

Mr. Trimble responsed cautiously to the IRA statement, saying it contained some ``quite positive'' elements. But he said it was important to proceed cautiously. ``We have to explore exactly what is meant by this inspection process,'' he told BBC TV. ``How it's going to be conducted, what procedures are going to be adopted to ensure that guns have remained secure. ``Then we want to ensure that this form of the process of inspection is part of an overall process leading to full and complete decommissioning and that when the IRA say they will put their guns beyond use completely and verifiably, it is complete, it is verifiable, that they are permanently completely finally beyond use. ``We know it will take some time but we need to be sure that is what's happening. I hope they've crossed that Rubicon.''

While anti-Good Friday Agreement unionists have already urged its rejection, the new compromise package appears to offer something to both sides. Mr. Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, urged them to seize the opportunity. ``For the first time we have, and it's an historical moment I think, a clear and unequivocal statement from the IRA that they are going to put their arms beyond use,'' he said.

Mr. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, said the IRA had made a powerful contribution to restoring the power-sharing institutions. ``Things are changing,'' he said. ``We are moving forward, hopefully to new times and there is a real opportunity now for politicians - Unionist, loyalist, nationalist and republican - to build a new future for all our people.

- Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2000.