David Trimble, the leader of Northern Ireland‘s Protestant majority Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), announces on May 18, 2000 that he will back a power-sharing deal with Catholic Sinn Féin when his party’s ruling council votes on it later in the month.
The 860-ruling Unionist Party council had been scheduled to meet on Saturday, May 13, but postponed the session for a week to allow Trimble to broaden his support among unionists still opposed to the deal. The council is expected to vote on resuming participation in a joint executive, which had been suspended on February 11 after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) failed to initiate disarmament.
The postponement of the unionist council meeting means a scheduled restart of devolution two days later will also be postponed. Great Britain and Ireland had offered to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and a power-sharing executive composed of unionist, nationalist and republican members by May 22.
Great Britain and Ireland are co-sponsors of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement on reconciliation between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Trimble tells news media he is ready to support a return to sharing power with Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, after receiving assurances on the arms issue.
Earlier in the month, the IRA broke the stalemate with an offer to put its arms arsenals beyond use under international supervision. The IRA offer fell short of a pledge to submit its weapons to destruction, as was understood from previous talks on the issue, but both Great Britain and Ireland back the compromise and press for its acceptance by unionists and nationalists as well.
Great Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson describes the postponement as the “correct decision.” He says, “David Trimble has been clarifying some issues and driving a hard bargain over others. Now he needs time to present the outcome to his party.” He says he is confident that Trimble will be successful and the way will then be paved for the return to power-sharing.
However, hard-line Ulster Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson says he does not believe that weapons will be put beyond use. “What we actually need to know and hear from the IRA is are they going to decommission their weapons?” Donaldson, a member of the British parliament, says in a BBC interview. “We haven’t had any clarification from the IRA.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says in parliament on Wednesday, May 17, the IRA offer to put its weapons “beyond use” is “an important confidence-building measure” but only the start of a process of silencing the guns. “We need to make progress until the time when these weapons are indeed completely, verifiably, beyond use,” Blair says.
(From: “Unionist leader says he will back Ulster deal,” UPI Archives, http://www.upi.com/archives, May 18, 2000)