Volatile elements in N. Ireland's new political formula

Under Blair plan, self-rule assembly to meet July 15; IRA arms handover

In the next few days the lone British bobby who guards the door of 10 Downing Street had better get used to doing a lot of saluting.

Chances are he'll have to greet 27 Ulster Unionist members of Northern Ireland's legislative assembly. Government sources in London say the assembly members soon will each receive an invitation to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with Tony Blair.

The British leader is working to a deliberately tight July 15 deadline to get the province's pro-British Protestants to agree to share political power with Catholics in a self-rule government.

Beyond the shiny black door of the prime minister's London residence, the elected representatives of Northern Ireland's religious majority can expect to come under intense pressure on this issue.

Changes to 'final' peace plan?

And in a bid to dispel Unionist doubts - which by the weekend appeared considerable - Mr. Blair will offer to make limited changes to the supposedly "final" peace plan hammered out in a marathon five-day bargaining session last week in Belfast.

Senior British government officials say he plans to give the assembly members assurances that if the Irish Republican Army fails to begin decommissioning its terrorist weapons in the coming weeks, the Northern Ireland assembly will remain in existence, without the IRA's political ally, Sinn Fein, as part of it.

Earlier Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, had indicated that the assembly and all other aspects of last year's Good Friday agreement would be suspended if the IRA failed to give up or destroy its weapons.

In an extremely unclear situation, specialists on Northern Ireland are reluctant to predict the outcome of the coming days of bargaining. Deagln de Bradn, analyst in Belfast for the Dublin-based Irish Times, says the answer to whether the IRA will decommission its weapons is "a definite maybe."

Blair and Mr. Ahern say they have been assured that "within days" the IRA will then begin handing in its arms.

Blair has set July 15 as the date for the executive to be approved by the assembly, probably in a brief but highly symbolic session. By September, the assembly would reconvene, by which time, the two premiers say, it will be possible to decide whether or not decommissioning is under way.

This formula differs sharply from current Unionist demands that decommissioning should begin ahead of the appointment of ministers to the executive body, or at the very least simultaneously with it.

The British and Irish leaders want to push through the peace package they announced last Friday after Blair had spoken of a "seismic shift" in Sinn Fein and IRA attitudes toward terrorist violence. But in the next 10 days, British and Irish officials admit, the two governments will have to bring on board Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, provisional First Minister in the Northern Ireland government.

Unionists lack unity

Mr. Trimble, himself under pressure from hard-line Unionists wary of Friday's peace formula, said on Sunday that he had "very serious problems" with it, and called for changes. Blair's planned invitation to Unionist assembly members to visit with him is his response.

Trimble's position is rendered more difficult by the fact that several Unionist assembly members have made solemn pledges to oppose the formation of an executive body until at least some IRA weapons are handed over.

The complex behind-the-scenes maneuvering triggered by last week's negotiations is taking place against a backdrop of fierce rhetoric on both sides of Northern Ireland's political and religious divide.

Several of Trimble's supporters are accusing Blair of "betrayal." Ken Maginnis, Trimble's security spokesman, says Blair and Ahern have been "conned by Sinn Fein."

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has accused Unionists of religious bigotry. "They just don't want to work with Catholics," he said July 2.

On Sunday there was at least one encouraging sign of Unionist flexibility. After threats of violence at Drumcree, scene of religious confrontations in past years, the Protestant Orange Order declined an attempt to break through police barricades to march through a mainly Catholic area, and, to the surprise of local police, dispersed peacefully. (see story, left.)

In London, one of Blair's officials said the outcome was "very welcome," but warned there still could be trouble in the area.

It was reported yesterday in the Irish Times that if Unionists soften their resistance to power-sharing, Blair might agree to let the delayed Drumcree march down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road take place.

Among other attempts to blunt Unionist resistance to the new peace package, Blair is reportedly preparing to move Mo Mowlam from her post as Northern Ireland Secretary. Trimble has said Ms. Mowlam no longer commands the trust of Protestants.

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